Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

Death on the Cherwell
Mavis Doriel Hay
Originally Published 1935

Death on the Cherwell was the second of three mystery novels written by Mavis Doriel Hay in the mid-1930s, all of which were reprinted a few years ago as part of the British Library Crime Classics range.

I previously read and reviewed Murder Underground, the first of her novels but found it to be a frustrating read in the way it blended (or rather, failed to blend) its comical and mystery elements into a plot. Still, I owned Death on the Cherwell already and felt that it was worth giving the book and the author another chance to impress.

The novel opens with four students gathering on top of a building to discuss their shared loathing of their college’s bursar, Ms. Denning. They form a secret society where they can share their complaints and frustrations about her. As they talk they notice a canoe drifting down river and the very person they were talking about lies dead inside having drowned. The problem is that if she drowned as a result of an accident how did she come to get back in the boat?

As introductions for murder victims go, having your corpse drift slowly down a river is fairly memorable while also serving to reinforce that university setting. At the same time, the situation is genuinely mystifying, in part because the manner of discovery is so suggestive of murder when you consider that were the body not in the boat the assumption would have been accidental drowning.

The four girls decide to play sleuth and start looking into the death on their own, inspired by the exploits of one of their cousins. Now, when I had read Hay’s previous novel, Murder Underground, I had assumed that it was a one-off novel so I was surprised to discover that two characters from that novel make extended “guest” appearances here. I can only assume that Hay intended to create a Marvel-like Pongleton Extended Universe with Betty and Basil serving as Nick Fury and Agent Coulson-type characters…

The tone of the investigation, much like that previous novel, is often quite comical. Betty and Basil do end up making pretty significant contributions to the story and contribute a light and breezy tone to the proceedings. While I felt this often worked against the premise of Murder Underground, coming off as callous given the characters’ relationships to the deceased, here it fits much better. Indeed I found myself wishing that more time was spent following their somewhat amateurish efforts rather than the somewhat drab and lifeless police investigation portion of the narrative.

This procedural element feels, in contrast to the adventures of the Pongletons and company, to be simultaneously detail-focused and lacking in energy. We traipse up and down the banks of the Cherwell, following a grumpy farmer and spend lots of time tracking movements. I often like those types of detail-driven detective stories (I do, after all, enjoy the adventures of Inspector French) but I found little to excite or interest me here because for much of the book there seems to be little progress being made.

This weakness in the middle section of the novel feels particularly disappointing because the plot’s ultimate destination and explanation of the circumstances behind that death are really quite interesting. Hay clues these developments fairly but I think the relevance of those clues passed me by as I allowed myself to be distracted by some other aspects of the story. This made for quite a satisfying reveal and certainly one of the more memorable resolutions to a Golden Age mystery I have encountered for quite some time.

Fortunately while the mystery elements drag in this section of the book, I found other aspects of the story’s setting to be appealing enough to keep me going. For instance, the characters Hay creates to populate her book with are all pretty recognizable university types of the era and certainly help to ground the action in its Oxford setting. There is a little bit of conflict between town and gown to navigate and some jokes are directed at the students who are studying English Literature and Language because they lack any other passion to pursue.

One aspect of the book that seems to trouble some readers is the portrayal of an Eastern European student who comes under suspicion for basically being foreign in England. While I can see that there are definitely some stereotypes at play, I feel Hay ultimately punctures them later in the story and in the process she shows that character to be a little more developed than she initially appears.

Perhaps my favorite sequence in the novel doesn’t really have anything to do with the mystery at all. It involves a character who has produced a (very!) slim volume of poetry that he is endeavoring to sell through the local bookstore. We are told that students and dons alike have got into the habit of reading entire books while in the shop itself and this character has developed a rather elaborate plan to make sure his copies actually sell. This sequence is handled with a wonderfully light touch and it is probably the thing I will retain longest from this book.

So when it comes to evaluating this novel I am left with a bit of a problem. While Death on the Cherwell starts and finishes well, the middle meanders and is mostly forgettable as a mystery, even if I found other parts of the story that appealed to me. As a result I am a little uncertain about how I feel about it. I certainly found it to be a more entertaining and balanced read than its predecessor and I found its university setting to be pretty appealing but were I reading this purely for the mystery I would probably have given up and not reached the ending.

As things stand though I have bought the final of Hay’s mysteries and will be curious to see how that compares (and if it also fits into the Pongleton universe).

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by drowning (How)

Kingston Noir, edited by Colin Channer

Kingston Noir
Edited by Colin Channer
Originally Published 2012

When I pick up one of the Akashic Noir anthologies I am really hoping for two things.

The first hope is that the stories contained in the collection will be interesting and speak to the distinctive aspects of a city such as its people and geography. Something that draws on a culture’s identity and perhaps immerses you so much that you feel you are there when you pick them up.

The second hope is to discover authors that would otherwise not be on my radar. Sometimes there are authors who are working for the first time in this style and genre but you also encounter more seasoned and distinctive voices.

Of the various Akashic titles I have read so far, Kingston Noir does the best job of fulfilling both of those hopes. Every story had its own distinctive voice, use of language and discussed themes and ideas that emerge from and make use of the stories’ settings.

Pleasingly the stories also generally avoid falling into cliche, showing us different aspects of society and in a few cases exploring the way the city has changed over the years. Not all are equally strong but even the less successful stories feel like they have something meaningful and interesting to say and justify the read.

The first section of the collection deals with characters visiting Kingston, exploring their statuses as outsiders in the city. All four stories in this section were interesting and offer quite distinctive voices and perspectives but my favorite here was Tomcat Beretta, a fascinating story that opens with a woman trying to acquire a gun leaving the reader to learn her reasons why.

The second section, “Is This Love?” was, for me, the weakest of the three. These stories are more crime-focused than those in the other two sections but they are also heavily psychological and discuss issues of sexuality and desire. I found this and some of the discussion of social issues to be interesting and of the four tales, Immaculate is by far the most successful.

The final section, “Pressure Drop”, features just three stories though each of them is remarkable in their own way. The first tale, 54-46 (That’s My Number), is a clever tale that follows an investigation into the disappearance of an athlete. As the title suggests there are mathematical elements to this and I found the relationship between the narrator and his math prodigy brother to be quite compelling.

The other two stories, Sunrise and Monkey Man, are heavier reads and end the book on a rather intense note (in spite of the section’s title). The former is a genuinely upsetting read but I think Abani’s story is quite powerful and it is highly successful in exploring how a character’s life will lead up to a moment and a choice. The latter is a crazier story with some dark elements but, once again, I was impressed by how thoughtful the writing is. Certainly nothing here felt unnecessary to the plot and themes that the writers developed.

Now, I suppose I should point out that Kingston Noir will not be for everyone. Triggers abound, particularly in terms of sexual violence, making for some heavy reading at time. Still, the quality of the writing is superb and I was impressed with the diversity of voices and the richness of the themes that this group of writers develop.

Of the various Akashic anthologies I have read so far, I consider this to be by far the most successful and engaging. Thoughts on each of the stories follow…

Continue reading “Kingston Noir, edited by Colin Channer”

Death in Paradise: Series Four

Previous series reviews:
Series One
Series Two
Series Three

It’s time to return to the fictional Caribbean island of Saint-Marie for another series of Death in Paradise mysteries. I was late in discovering the show and have been binge-watching it, writing these posts as I go.

In my previous post about the show I covered the third series which brought about the first changes to the show’s regular cast. This fourth series features some further changes with two departures and two additions.

Sergeant Best is the first to depart but, to my frustration, this has happened off screen in the gap between series three and four. Having invested in and liked the character it is a shame that he didn’t get a proper farewell.

I was a little better prepared for the second departure of the series as Camille is written out. While it is still pretty abrupt given that earlier episodes in the season were still playing with the possibility of a romance with Goodman, this is at least handled throughout the course of the story and the moment of departure feels satisfying, providing some closure.

Happily I liked both of the additions a lot, feeling that they both brought something new to the show. Joséphine Jobert is charming as DS Florence Cassell, establishing quite a different relationship with DI Goodman than her predecessor that focuses more on her professional skills than their interpersonal relationship. That being said, there are some nice moments between the pair that suggest strong mutual respect developing by the end of this series.

Officer J. P. Hooper is youthful and enthusiastic while adding a serious streak that makes him a solid foil for Dwayne. He gets quite a lot to do here and does grow a little over the series.

In terms of the cases I think that this raised the standard from the previous series. Several cases presenting interesting problems to solve, Swimming in Murder defeating me completely. Even the weaker cases possess interesting subplots and guest performances making for a consistently entertaining run of episodes.

Continue reading “Death in Paradise: Series Four”

One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters

One Corpse Too Many
Ellis Peters
Originally Published 1979
Brother Cadfael #2
Preceded by A Morbid Taste for Bones
Followed by Monk’s Hood

It has been over a year since I shared my thoughts on the first of the Brother Cadfael series, A Morbid Taste for Bones. For those who are completely new to the series it is worth giving a little background about the setting and character. Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who lives at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury where he tends herbs in the abbey gardens. He had been a soldier and a sailor in the Crusades, giving him considerable experience of human nature which he is able to use in solving crimes.

While the series employs some elements of the detective story, the novels usually incorporate considerable adventure and romance subplots. This story is a good case in point as while Cadfael does work to identify and explain a murder, large parts of the tale are not ‘fair play’ or are quite simplistic (for instance, the deduction that if they have a missing part of an object that was dislodged during a murder then the killer may have the remainder of it).

There was a time when this series would occupy as much space on bookstore shelves as the Agatha Christie novels but in recent years the character and series seem to have diminished in popularity. They remain hugely influential however and while the stories may not be to everyone’s tastes, I do think they paved the way for subsequent historical mysteries by proving that there could be a market for them.

One Corpse Too Many is set during the early years of the civil war that took place when King Stephen and Empress Maud vied for the English throne, a fascinating period of history. The reader is given the background information needed to understand the conflict in the text but the key point is that Stephen has taken Shrewsbury Castle and put its ninety-four defenders to death. Cadfael is sent from the abbey to prepare the bodies for proper burial but as he counts he notices that there are ninety-five bodies.

Attempts are made to persuade Cadfael that this is the result of a simple miscounting but he insists that there is an extra body, pointing out differences in the manner of death. This raises the question of who the body belongs to and why they were murdered.

I should acknowledge that this is another case where the reader has little opportunity to play armchair detective. If you are primarily in this for the puzzles you may feel shortchanged, though I am rather fond of stories that feature unidentified corpses!

For me, this opening situation is the most intriguing part of the story and I think the idea of hiding a corpse amongst other bodies is clever enough to feel novel and plausible while also seeming like the sort of crime that someone sufficiently diligent might be able to detect. I enjoyed following Cadfael’s efforts as he works to identify that body, all of which seem quite sensible and credible and I thought that the answer given was interesting, sending the narrative in a new direction.

Things tick along fairly well, if not particularly dramatically, until we get to the point at which our hero is ready to make their accusation. It is, of course, hard to describe the problem without spoiling developments in the story but it lies in the way that the crime will be proved. Those reading the novel as an adventure or for the historical setting will likely enjoy what follows and I suppose there is an argument to be made that the proof and reasoning are known to the detective but I felt that it was unsatisfying as a resolution and felt that it dragged on a little too long.

There is another issue with the book that has arisen when the reader comes to it with a knowledge of later titles – namely that much of the book is spent considering whether a character that will be a series regular is the guilty party. I don’t think that it is fair to criticise an author for this, particularly because I think that the choice to bring that character back was a good one, but it does mean that a key piece of misdirection that makes up a considerable part of the novel simply will not work as well as was intended for some readers.

In addition to the central mystery the book has several interesting side plots and characters, adding further interest to the setting and situation. The most entertaining of these for me concerns a youth who has just been admitted to the abbey as a lay servant with a year’s endowment and is sent to assist Cadfael with his work in the fields. I enjoyed getting to know this character and I liked the way it allows Cadfael to show more of his caring, protective side, revealing another aspect of his personality.

Cadfael also benefits from having a second investigator to bounce his ideas off, allowing more of his thoughts to be revealed through dialogue and action rather than in the narration. This also allows us to see him in a slightly different context, working alongside someone who appreciates his intelligence and with whom he can share his thoughts. There is a pleasing contrast between the two characters who share some traits in common but also have some significant differences and I think the interplay between those two characters is one of the most successful parts of the second half of the novel.

I feel that this second Cadfael adventure does a good job of building on the successes of the first while adding in a few new elements. As much as I enjoyed the politics of the cloister, it was good to get a story grounded in real (and very interesting) historical events and a chance to explore more aspects of Cadfael’s character. Admittedly the mystery elements are weak and undermined for those who may have read later stories in the series but in spite of that I found it to be an entertaining read with an interesting premise.

Old World Murder by Kathleen Ernst

Old World Murder
Kathleen Ernst
Originally Published 2010
Chloe Ellefson #1
Followed by The Heirloom Murders

Old World Murder was the first in a series of mysteries featuring Chloe Ellefson, a curator at the real-life ethnic history museum Old World Wisconsin. I am always on the lookout for cozy mysteries with original or very distinctive settings and given my love of history this seemed a particularly promising fit for me.

Chloe has recently returned to the United States after living in Switzerland for several years. The return was somewhat sudden after her boyfriend abruptly ends their relationship and she is trying to make the best of this new start. Unfortunately her arrival is anything but smooth and on her first day she upsets several colleagues.

The worst comes at the end of the day when an elderly woman meets with her and begs her to find and return an eighteenth century wooden ale bowl that she donated several decades earlier. Chloe tries to explain that she has only just arrived but the woman remains agitated and when Chloe leaves work shortly afterwards she discovers the woman has died in a car crash.

Blaming herself Chloe tries to track down the bowl, feeling that she owes it to her to keep a promise she made but she soon discovers that the bowl is missing. More suspicious still, the paperwork for its transfer to the museum has been ripped out of the book leaving Chloe to suspect that the death was not accidental…

While Old World Murder is a mystery novel, I think its strongest arc is the development of Chloe throughout the novel. When we first meet her she is tired, depressed and for all of her talk about how she is hopeful about this fresh start there is a sense of doom evident in the way she talks about her future. She feels out of step with life and intimidated by the younger, more driven intern she is working with and seems to lack confidence that she will succeed.

This book tracks her transformation as she becomes more assertive and regains her interest in living. This takes a while but part of the journey we take with her is learning about exactly what happened in Switzerland and why she has found herself in Wisconsin. Learning about those aspects of her journey made it much easier to sympathize with her situation and to relate to her feelings. This characterization work isn’t always subtle but it is superbly structured and I do think Ernst does a very good job of developing her in the course of this adventure.

Chloe is not the only perspective character Ernst provides however as she also introduces us to Roelke McKenna, a police officer who she encounters and frustrates frequently throughout the novel. Ernst tries to flesh out his character too with information about his childhood and family life, starting with simple story point about his father but adding some complexities and nuance to that relationship. He is not a perfect man and I found their interactions to miss the cute bickering sweet spot to fall more frequently into serious disagreement territory. The romance didn’t really work for me here but I think it ties in with and develops the broader themes of the novel.

The history museum aspect of the novel lived up to my expectations as the author was able to draw on some personal experience of both the profession and of the actual location that this book is set at (though, as she notes in an introductory note, many of the buildings are fictional). There are some interesting details about how collections are developed and these historic sites are run that are introduced in ways that feel germane to the story and its themes and I came away feeling like I had a better understanding of this world.

Incidentally, I also found the discussion about the nature of the apparently stolen object to be interesting and appreciated the information the book gives about the value of such items to the Norwegian immigrants. Some titles have difficulty integrating that sort of research into the body of a novel without it feeling like research dumping but given the object’s significance to this case it didn’t feel like the case here.

Ernst’s decision to set her story several decades ago was a smart one on several levels. For one thing it places the action closer to a time she had experience of this setting but it also avoids the problem of information being instantly accessible and creates communications issues for the characters. While there are some period details, mostly this is kept in the background or used sparingly to add color to scenes.

Turning to the mystery itself, I have rather more mixed feelings.

While I can understand Chloe’s feeling upset at the death of the elderly woman she was trying to help, I do think her motivations for getting so closely involved in what is clearly a very dangerous case are weak. Now, I understand that it is pretty typical of a protagonist in one of these stories to take risks in pursuing a killer but usually this occurs later in the story and is a fairly isolated incident. Chloe is reckless from the start of this novel however, frequently putting herself in harm’s way for seemingly little returns. While I recognize that this plays into the idea that she is depressed and not really taking care of herself, it does have the effect of making her look rather foolish and impulsive as she repeatedly makes the same choice (which, admittedly, Roelke does call her out on).

I did appreciate that the initial appearance of the crime did feel perfectly pitched to the setting, situations and characters Ernst had created. For most of this story Chloe is investigating the apparent theft of a historical item and while there may be some suspicion of foul play when it comes to the death, she isn’t setting out to try and beat the police. Instead she is trying to find answers to something they cannot investigate and that may be evidence that they should be treating that death as murder.

Which brings me to the solution which I found equally brilliant and frustrating. Being as vague as I can be, I can say that there are some ideas introduced in that solution that struck me as being quite surprising and clever. Those developments are not always entirely clued, though once you are told what they are it is easy to find evidence for them.

On the other hand, I found the villain’s identity to be quite disappointing. It is not so much that I had my heart set on someone else but rather that I felt that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for the reader to work it out for themselves. Those who read cozies as adventures will not mind this but if you are looking for a good puzzle then you may leave disappointed.

Where does all that leave me overall with the novel? Well, I would say that I found it to be a pretty enjoyable read. Chloe has appeal and promise as a protagonist and while I do not crave for her to get together with Roelke, I could see how that relationship might be built on in subsequent stories to be something I might feel a little more comfortable with.

Though it is not a perfect read, Old World Murder entertains and informs enough that I found myself to be pretty absorbed by it.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1934

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an important and widely celebrated novel within the mystery and crime fiction genre. It is a fixture on many best novel lists including the CWA, MWA and Modern Library top hundred lists. It has been adapted a number of times, including the celebrated 1946 movie adaptation, and proved hugely influential in its ideas and imagery, inspiring other works like Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread and Camus’ The Stranger.

It begins when a drifter named Frank Chambers visits a diner and is offered a job by the proprietor, Nick Papadakis. Frank is not usually one to stick around and work a paycheck but he feels an intense attraction to the man’s much younger wife, Cora, and after deciding to stay a while, the two initiate an affair.

The pair eventually develop a scheme by which they intend to kill Nick, making it appear to be an accident. Things however do not run smoothly and soon Frank and Cora find themselves under police scrutiny…

The first thing that strikes me about this novel is just how confident and direct Cain’s writing is. Even eighty-five years later it still possesses a striking raw quality that perfectly fits the tone of the story and helps to establish the main characters. Few debut novelists find their voice so early and so clearly.

Cain wastes little time in establishing the premise and the relationships between Frank, Cora and Nick, creating a compelling and tense situation. Nick is oblivious to the affair going on behind his back but we quickly learn that Cora is looking for a way out and she sees this new relationship with Frank as her answer, planning to lean on him to help dispose of her husband.

Cora is the archetypal femme fatale, being young, seemingly vulnerable and yet uncompromising with an apparent masochistic streak. There is, of course, a way that Frank and Cora could be together – they could just skip town – but she cannot walk away from the business and the prospect of getting Nick’s money. Frank knows the dangers inherent in what she asks him to do and yet he wants her badly enough that he will put himself at risk, acting almost as if he is under compulsion by ignoring his own concerns.

Knowing that she opts to pursue a more dangerous approach to ridding herself of her husband, it is hard to see Cora as a sympathetic character. We learn a little about her backstory, marrying young and working in the kitchens but Nick is clearly not a tyrant, making him a rather undeserving corpse. Instead her desire to leave him seems rooted in racism and xenophobia because of his Greek background, leaving me with little sympathy for her.

The relationships between Frank, Nick and Cora are wonderfully ambiguous at times. We might wonder, for instance, whether Cora is as mad about Frank as she appears and certainly Frank’s own interest in her waxes and wanes. This is not as a result of some oversight on Cain’s part but rather it is the whole point of the novel as it builds to a moment in which we have to question those feelings and judge for ourselves. That moment struck me as really powerful and while I have my reading of that relationship, I could conceive others coming away with a different impression that could just as easily be supported by the material.

Though the novel is pretty short, Cain packs it with plenty of incident and quite a few surprises. Nothing seems to go smoothly for the pair and there are a few significant problems that set the narrative into new and interesting directions, particularly once lawyers become involved.

Perhaps the weakest element of the novel is that it seems pretty clear where the action will be headed yet I think it would be unfair to blame it for any familiar plot elements. This is a novel that has clearly been emulated many times since being written yet I suspect it would have been a lot more shocking, particularly its ending, at the time.

This seems a pretty pointless quibble when the quality of the story is otherwise so high. I found The Postman Always Rings Twice to be quite an engrossing and striking read. Sometimes when you read a book that is labeled a classic the results are disappointing. Happily my experience here was excellent, being the rare case of a book that meets its reputation. It may not be quite perfect in every regard but the story is strong and powerful while the situations are really engrossing. If you have never read it, I strongly recommend seeking out a copy.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by blunt instrument (How)

Murder in the Mill-Race by E. C. R. Lorac

Murder in the Mill-Race
E. C. R. Lorac
Originally Published 1952
Also known as Speak Justly of the Dead (US)
Inspector MacDonald #36
Preceded by The Dog It Was That Died
Followed by Crook O’Lune

I have not previously written about any works by E. C. R. Lorac though that does not mean that I was entirely uninitiated when I picked up Murder in the Mill-Race. I own copies of each of the other Lorac titles released as part of the British Library Crime Classics and have made several attempts to read them. Somehow I just could not get into them and so they stay sat on my shelf waiting for me to give them another try.

I had little intention of reading Murder in the Mill-Race but it happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was about to leave for a weekend trip with my family when a bundle of ARCs arrived. I expected to have little time for reading but took the books anyway only to find when we got to our room that it had a really comfortable balcony that was the perfect place to read. The laptop wasn’t charged and the other book was a Bellairs (and I generally don’t read the same author back-to-back) so Lorac suddenly appeared at the top of the pile…

Murder in the Mill-Race begins by introducing us to Dr Raymond Ferens and his wife who have recently relocated to North Devon for the sake of his health. He establishes a practice in Milham and gets to know the locals, including Sister Monica – the warden of the children’s home who he takes a pretty quick dislike to.

Several months later she is discovered floating in the mill-race (for the sake of those who, like me, have no clue what this is it apparently is the channel of moving water next to a mill that turns its wheel – the book and introduction both assume the reader will know what this is). The local authorities would like to believe that the death was an accident and yet no one seems able to explain how she might have contrived to hit the back of her head and fall in the water. Inspector MacDonald is summoned and begins to ask uncomfortable questions, uncovering some local secrets including a previous suspicious death in the same place.

I should perhaps start by saying that I clearly enjoyed this a lot more than the other Lorac titles I tried to read. For one thing I completed this. A totally relaxing environment probably helped a little but I particularly appreciated the way Lorac depicts her setting. She so perfectly captures the stagnation of a rural village setting and the relationships between gentry and villager in that period that I found it a pretty immersive read and had little trouble believing that these locations and characters might exist.

I rarely make notes while reading but I wanted to share one moment that I found particularly effective. Emmeline Braithwaite, in talking to Anne Ferens, tells her how welcome she and Raymond are because they are the first ‘people from the outside world’ to have settled in the area in a quarter of a century. I found this sentiment to be a really interesting one as I don’t think it had ever really struck home with me quite how static communities could still be at the midpoint of the twentieth century. At the same time, I find it interesting how quickly the pair are integrated into village life, seeming to view MacDonald as an outsider themselves (particularly Raymond).

Several other reviewers (linked below) have commented on how they liked Raymond as an investigator and found the sudden switch from establishing his perspective to that of Chief Inspector MacDonald to be jarring. I have some sympathy for this though I think Lorac’s decision to introduce us to some of the personalities within the village prior to the crime being committed was a solid choice. After all, given the way the locals clam up once Sister Monica is dead it is helpful to get a sense of what they really think while she is still living and vexing them.

The actual circumstances of the murder are not particularly dazzling or memorable. This is perhaps appropriate given there is supposed to be considerable question about whether it is even a murder at all but it does mean that those initial phases of the investigation do not feel particularly remarkable.

MacDonald’s arrival gives the investigation some energy and I think sets the story on a more interesting course, though it does not present the reader with much in the way of clearly defined (or rather signposted) clues. Instead we observe the locals, hear what they say and choose not to say, and generally get a sense of the relationships between the different parties involved.

It resulted in a reading experience that reminded me more of Rendell than the more puzzle-focused Christie. I do feel that the reader is given the information they need to work out the killer’s identity (I say that in part because I did just that) but that relevant information tends to be buried and we are given little interpretation of those facts until MacDonald summarizes his findings. In other words, Lorac avoids giving us the opportunity to learn what information MacDonald views as relevant and makes solving the case a little bit tougher.

Rekha comments on finding MacDonald unlikeable and I can certainly see why he might inspire that reaction. Just as we do not follow his investigation very closely, I similarly felt that we get much of a sense of his character from this story. Now, I will say that this was a very late entry in a long-running series so there may have been an expectation that most readers would know him already but I did not get the sense of him as being a particularly dynamic or interesting sleuth off the back of this outing.

I did like the solution Lorac provides for the story and I do think it is both credible and interesting on a character level. I had no problem accepting MacDonald’s reasoning for his summation of the case but I will say that this part of the book struck me as a little dry and drawn out.

I think it’s fair to say that Murder in the Mill-Race exceeded my expectations by being a pretty solid case, even if the telling of that story was, at times, a little dry. What I appreciated most about it was the way Lorac is able to depict a community reacting to tragedy in ways both positive and negative, making those reactions feel credible and interesting. While not perfect, it’s enough to make me give those Lorac paperbacks a second chance.

I just need another vacation on which to enjoy them…

A copy was provided by the publisher, The British Library, for review.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Any outdoor location (Where)

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery shared his thoughts on this last year which are broadly positive. I do agree with his comments about the sort of false start Lorac gives us where one investigator is replaced by another.

Rekha @ The Book Decoder was less enthusiastic, finding Inspector MacDonald’s investigative style grating.

Countdown John falls somewhere in the middle, finding it readable but quite ordinary while Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime felt that the crime was not one the reader could solve themselves.

Finally, if you are looking for an interesting look at the life and career of E. C. R. Lorac I can recommend this overview by Curtis Evans.