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
Never make trouble in the village” is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbor’s sins and shortcomings, but you must never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.
When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first, they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets—envy, hatred, and malice.
Everyone says that Sister Monica, warden of a children’s home, is a saint—but is she? A few months after the Ferens’ arrival her body is found drowned in the mill-race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.
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)
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.
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.