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“At midnight one is much more disposed to melodrama” @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #ecrlorac

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After a slightly uninspiring experience with the Sciascia, I thought I might head to safer ground and pick up a British Library Crime Classic – I find you really can’t go wrong with them! 😀 The title in question is “These Names Make Clues” by E.C.R. Lorac whose been, as far as I’m concerned, one of the great successes of the BL reprints. I’ve read a number of her titles, including one under the name of Carol Carnac, and they’ve been marvellous. “These Names…” is a slightly unusual title, however; first published in 1937, it’s been out of print since and as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, copies seem unavailable anywhere and there’s no critical commentary on the book. Thank goodness for the BL and its deposits, then….

The Loracs I’ve read have been mainly set in WW2 or post-war; however, this particular mystery is set earlier and is much more traditional than her other books. Graham Coombe, a celebrated publisher, is hosting a treasure hunt party, to which he invites a number of novelists and thriller writers in disguise. Also invited is Chief Inspector Macdonald, Lorac’s regular sleuth, and despite misgivings the detective attends. Each guest has taken on the persona of a real author, and the Chief Inspector is posing as Izaak Walton. Also present are Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, Laurence Sterne and Pepys, plus other authors perhaps less well known to modern readers, like Thomas Traherne. The hunt gets underway and is going well, until suddenly all the electricity in the house goes off. After much fumbling and fixing of fuses, it transpires that one of the guests has died. Initial suspicions are of a heart attack, as he’s known to have been in poor health; but Macdonald’s sharp eyes spot that something is wrong, and it’s soon clear that this is murder.

However, this is not going to be an easy case to investigate. Apart from the fact that the guests were all impersonating other writers, many of them are hiding behind authorial pseudonyms, and even knowing quite who is who is difficult for Macdonald. The motive for the killing is hard to fathom, too, and then another body is discovered elsewhere, but which has connections to the first victim. The method of murder is like something out of one of the guests’ murder books, and Macdonald struggles to find connections and threads to pull the solution together…

Lorac is always a wonderfully entertaining author to read, and “These Names…” was no exception; in fact, it was a particular delight to see her spoofing the literary world, with the publishers, agents and authors all coming in for a little barbed commentary. There was a lovely reference to a block of service flats for women which reminded me of the modernist Isokon building which featured in “Circles and Squares” and anchored the book firmly in the 1930s. The women characters were wonderfully drawn too, particularly Coombe’s sister Susan, who has strongly feminist views.

The murder itself was ingenious (I shall say no more) and quite in line with the world of the time. The pseudonyms, the hidden identities and the rather unexpected solution were fun; although, as Martin Edwards says in his introduction, she doesn’t quite play fair with the reader in the way that members of the Detection Club did in those days. Some of the elements seem to develop quite late in the plot in a way that meant I didn’t quite foresee what was coming. That’s not really a problem, to be honest, because I rarely work out whodunnit and this one was certainly a twisty mystery! As Ali has commented, the book perhaps has a little less atmosphere than some of her works – in other books I’ve read, her sense of place and portrayal of setting have been vivid – but the book is still a diverting and very satisfying read. Lorac was an astonishingly prolific writer, as a quick glance at her Wikipedia page reveals, and it’s just wonderful that British Library Publishing are reprinting her books. No, you really *can’t* go wrong with Golden Age Crime!

“…his logical powers had not been in abeyance…” @BritLibPublishing #crimeclassics #twowaymurder

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One of the very many joys of reading the wonderful releases in the British Library Crime Classics range is the opportunity to discover so many excellent authors whose books have slipped into relative obscurity over the years. E.C.R. Lorac is one of those, and from what I’ve seen amongst my fellow bloggers and tweeters, her books are very popular. Lorac was Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote under the name Carol Carnac (I reviewed a particularly fine mystery by her here); and she was a prolific author. However, the BL came up trumps with their most recent release by Lorac, as it turns out that the book, “Two-Way Murder”, was written during the final years of her life but never published! Needless to say, I was very, very keen to read it!

“Two-Way…” is a standalone mystery in that it doesn’t feature Lorac’s regular detective, Inspector Macdonald. The action takes place in the coastal town of Fordings, where the local Hunt Ball is the biggest event for miles around and even attracts people from the capital! Nicholas Brent and Ian Macbane travel down together in a very nasty fog; and both seem to be drawn to the main attraction of Fordings, the lovely Dilys Maine. However, she has a long-standing friendship with Michael Reeve, the heir of a somewhat notorious and unpopular local family who in olden times were lords of the manor. Romantic complications must be put aside, however, when a body is discovered on the road by Nick and Dilys; but who is he? As Nick goes to report the death, he’s attacked; the local Inspector, Turner, seems flummoxed; and it’s down to Waring of the CID, a much more imaginative man, to investigate further.

The story has plenty of twists and turns; there are long-standing local grievances between the Reeve family and the Hoyles who run the local pub (and probably have many more dodgy enterprises going on behind the scenes). Then there’s Dilys’s widowed father, who has all manner of bees in his bonnet, keeping a tight control on his daughter and hiding secrets of his own. And how is this all connected with the disappearance of Rosemary Reeve, Michael’s sister, some years ago? It will take all of Waring’s skill and imagination to untangle all of the various threads, leading to a dramatic climax – although there’s a dark horse in the middle of the plot, in the form of the Maines’ housekeeper Alice, who seems at times to be a better detective than the CID man!

Well, I can’t for the life of me imagine why this book was never published, because it’s a real gem. It’s set in the late 1950s, a little bit on from most of the Loracs I’ve read which have either been during the War or shortly after. The world is continuing to change in the post-War era, and that’s reflected in the world of Fordings; class assumptions are gradually changing, old habits like smuggling are being abandoned and modern trends like motor bike riding are sneaking in. And interestingly, at one point two of the characters are discussing the fact that the terminology they’ve previously used about a particular kind of establishment is now not the done thing, and they need to use a new-fangled description – sentences which could have come out of any modern tabloid! However, as the unfolding plot reveals, old emnities die hard, and it’s necessary to look back to the past to find out the motives of present actions – all wonderfully plotted and written by Lorac.

Martin Edwards’ excellent foreword reveals how the book came to publication, and it seems we have to thank one James M. Pickard who had the manuscript in his collection and kindly shared it with the British Library – well done, that man! The release of this lost Lorac is a real coup for the BL Crime Classics range, and I’m so glad it’s been finally published. “Two-Way Murder” is a wonderfully clever, brilliantly written and thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish; I loved it, and I’m going to have to dig out the unread Loracs I have lurking very soon!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

Classic crime in wartime fog…. @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #ecrlorac

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I have to confess that real life has been a little stressful lately. Work (in a school) has been much more complex than usual, and although it does get me out of the house, it’s draining and somewhat weird. Though I mustn’t complain because at least I am working. However, juggling the 1956 Club plus PC woes left me in need of a little comfort reading, and a recent release in the British Library Crime Classics range was the perfect thing!

“Checkmate to Murder” is the latest title to be reissued by the BL from E.C.R. Lorac; she’s one of the authors who’s proved to be a particular hit, with many of her books having been republished so far.  I’ve read a number of these, including a recent favourite “Crossed Skis” (published another of her pseudonyms, Carol Carnac) and I love them. Lorac is brilliant at conjuring atmosphere, and a previous release “Murder by Matchlight” brought alive vividly its Second World War setting. “Checkmate…” was first published in 1944 and is also set in wartime, in the depths of the blackout; and a clever and twisty tale it turned out to be!

The book opens with a dramatic setting: in an artists’ studio in Hampstead, artist Bruce Manaton is deeply involved in the portrait he’s painting of his actor friend Andre Delaunier. As the painter continues to portray his model, seated and dressed in striking Cardinal’s robes, two other friends Robert Cavendish and Ian Mackellon (both highly respectable men) play chess at the other end of the room. Flitting in and out is the painter’s sister Rosanne, who’s preparing dinner; and the local cockney char, Mrs. Tubbs, also pops by. Suddenly there is a commotion at the door, and a local special constable Lewis Verraby bursts in, hauling an injuried soldier with him. He claims that the old miser next door, great uncle to the soldier and landlord of the studio tenants, has been murdered – and that the great nephew is the murderer! However, Verraby himself is not quite what he seems, and neither is this case; and it will take all the ingenuity of Lorac’s regular detective, Inspector Macdonald, to get to the bottom of things!

Sometimes these past two years I’ve thought human beings were making a bee-line for hell.

I have to confess to simply devouring this book – it was just such a good read! Lorac plots brilliantly, and certainly this story had me guessing right up until the end. There are, of course, a couple of obvious suspects from the start; and I hoped that the eventual solution would be nothing as simplistic as either of them being the murderer. Her cast of characters was by necessity narrow, as because of the setting of the foggy blackout, and the posting of sentries of sorts in the area, there was a limit to who could be around within the relevant time frame. Although I did guess one element in the eventual solution, I had no idea to whom that element applied, nor how the murder was committed – so it was all very clever. The wartime setting is always an evocative one, and Lorac captures it quite brilliantly, with the fog and the blackout and the tensions and the shortages all elements affecting the characters’ behaviours.

It’s hard to discuss more specifics of the plot without giving too much away, so all I’ll say is that there were any number of tangled threads including property development, poverty, greed and artistic temperament. As for Lorac’s characters, well they are a really entertaining bunch; Bruce and Rosanne are engaging siblings, both with strong artistic talents but with Rosanne allowing hers to be subsumed in supporting her brother. The actor Delaunier is a wonderful larger than life figure, Mrs. Tubbs is probably a bit of a Cockney ‘salt-of-the-earth” cliche (but still great fun and also highly appreciated during the War years), and Cavendish and Mackellon are convincing foils for the temperamental artistes. As for the detecting team, they’re always satisfying and as ever with Macdonald it was great to watch his leaps of intuition followed by the actual working out of how his supicions may have actually been carried out; although he does keep his cards close to his chest until the very end!

So another joyful read from the BL, and the perfect distraction just when I wanted it. I don’t know that I’ve ever needed comfort reading quite as much as I have during 2020, and so having the Crime Classics to turn to has been a real boon. The Lorac reissues have been one of the highlights of the series, and this was a particularly strong entry. I could quite easily develop a BLCC addition – if I haven’t already done so…. 😀

Crime in the Blackout @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac

If in doubt, cosy crime…. I spent quite a number of hours reading the Owen Hatherley book, which I really enjoyed, but I felt in need of something a bit different. Hence, I suppose, a quick rummage in the pile of British Library Crime Classics waiting to be read and reviewed! I settled for this one because I enjoyed Lorac’s short story in the collection “The Christmas Card Crime” so much; and also I think because Harriet rated it so highly in her review. I wasn’t disappointed!

E.C.R. Lorac was the pen-name used by Edith Caroline Rivett, and she also wrote under the name of Carol Carnac. Astonishingly, despite the fact that she was a prolific writer of Golden Age crime, and a member of the Detection Club, her work has been all but forgotten until its recent revival by the BLCC imprint – so more kudos for them. Her regular detective was Inspector Macdonald, who features in this story, and as the introduction by Martin Edwards makes clear, “Murder by Matchlight” was considered one of her best; it’s received considerable praise in other reviews I’ve read, even by BLCC standards, and it’s not hard to see why…

London was silent, with a silence which had no quality of peacefulness: in its shroud of darkness the place seemed tense, uneasy, as if it were waiting for the first banshee held of sirens which seemed a fitting accompaniment to the listening darkness.

“Murder by Matchlight” was first published in 1945 and is firmly set during the Second World War. We are in a world of ration cards and the black market; the black-out and air raids; and as the story opens a young man called Bruce Mallaig is walking in Regent’s Park in the dark, a place he can now get access to at night because the railings have been taken away to use for munitions. Having been stood up for a date, he’s in a morose mood; however, his mood is about to worsen as he witness an apparently impossible murder. A man on a bridge is killed, apparently by someone whose face materialises briefly in the light of a match. However, someone else was under the bridge and heard no other footsteps; and there are no more footprints.

Fortunately, Chief Inspector Macdonald is on hand to investigate, and a visit to the murdered man’s lodgings reveals a colourful array of potential suspects, most notably Mr. and Mrs. Rameses, a magical act. However, there is another possible connection to the murdered man’s past in Ireland, where he fought for Sinn Fein; and also to the film industry at Denham, where he gained occasional work. It’s a clever, twisty mystery that takes all of Macdonald’s ingenuity to sort out. And I confess to being completely misled (which I do love in a GA Crime Novel!). At times I thought I was a step ahead of Lorac and Macdonald, only to be regularly wrongfooted, and I only really started to get an inkling when the book got close to its big reveal. The end was ingenious and satisfying, leaving me wanting more of both Lorac’s writing and the characters she created. I particularly adored the Rameses’, and her description of Macdonald’s first encounter with the lady of the couple is priceless!

They lived in the flat on the first floor and the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce-coloured, wadded silk dressing up-gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements, for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

However, despite it being an excellent and readable mystery, where “Murder…” really scores is in its setting and atmosphere. The further away we get from the Second World War, the harder it is for us to imagine what it was to live through those days and those events. We’re fairly unused to conflicts taking place on our little island, and it does us good to be reminded, I think. Lorac doesn’t shy away from any of this, and cleverly builds the events happening in London (a dramatic bombing raid, the people involved and how they react) into her story. She also inserts at several points comment on the fact that justice must be seen to be done, whatever else is happening in the world. The murder victim is not a particularly nice person, one the world is probably better without. Yet when Macdonald is taken to task for worrying about who killed him while the world is going to hell in a handcart, he equates allowing a murderer to get away killing to allying oneself to Nazism. It’s a powerful message, even more so as it was written while the conflict was taking place.

(Macdonald) had an uncomfortable feeling that his lungs were still full of smoke: the reek of last night’s fire seem to hang about him. Then he realised that a thick fog brooded over London and he wished for a moment that he was anywhere else in the world – anywhere, away from fog and bombs and barrage and shelters and demolitions and all the rest of it.

So “Murder by Matchlight” is a punchy and powerful addition to the BLCC list (and now I’m keen to read her other titles too!) This book comes with a lovely little extra in the form of a rarely seen short story by Lorac, which is extremely satisfying. I’m so glad I followed my instincts and picked this book up right now; it was the perfect read for a cold and gloomy January, and I find myself wondering quite how we lovers of classic crime got by before the British Library started bringing out these rather wonderful books… 😉

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!

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