In this British Library Crime reprint we are offered Lorac’s 1944 Fell Murder – not set in her more usual Devon but in the Lake District. As it was a contemporary tale, it is set during the Second World War to which there are constant references. Garthmere is a rural community adjusting to the stresses of the new requirements, practices and regulations. So when a murder occurs the local police will initially undertake the investigation – but overstretched with new duties (and the non-availability of police due to enlistments) a familiar face – Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard – will be called in. He will work the case in his usual inimitable style and uncover the guilty party.
Early on we are introduced to John Staple, small farmer and overseer of Garthwaite Hall Farm. Setting the background he will be talking to Richard Garth (oldest son and heir of the owner Robert, who is now in his eighties but still farming). He has been absent from the area for over 25 years in Canada after a falling out over his marriage plans. Richard, working on the Atlantic convoys and coming close to death several times, is quietly using his leave to visit places from his youth. But he will not visit his family. Shortly after the meeting, his father will be found shot dead and the police will be called in.
The course of the story and investigation will present all the family – farming daughter, middle son home from the Far East after the fall of Singapore and the youngest half-brother restricted by poor health, the late father, Robert and a distant “cousin” Elizabeth working there as a war-time “land girl”. Servants, farm workers and neighbouring farmers and residents will be built into the picture – many as possible suspects. All will need to maintain their farming routines throughout the investigation so Lorac shows in believable detail the realities of war-time farming during the second major war in less than thirty years. She hints that things have inevitably been changing under the pressures – but this has been causing disagreements and family pressures that have been playing out for years and might now be coming to a head.
As a “simple” detective novel – can the killer be discovered? – this is a fine tale. With a full range of the community depicted and family disagreements it is not easy to spot the killer too early. MacDonald’s need to gain the confidence of the community to persuade them to provide him with information needed to solve the crime is mirrored in the gradually built picture not just of the living landscape but the people and activities within it. He cannot rush, and that creates a quiet ambience for the reader too. The terminology and the behaviour and speech of the characters might inevitably seem dated, but none of the story seems unlikely – so this novel has worn well.
So if you like re-prints of historic crime novels this should be one for you. Lorac is a fine writer and is good at quietly depicting both her characters and the lives they live in a sympathetic manner that is engaging. The wartime background – and the Lakes iocation, even now a major tourist destination – hold their attractions too. Underlying it all is, of course, the extreme irony of a wide enquiry into the death of one elderly man at a time when thousands are dying every week by the impact of war in both Britain and elsewhere. Ordinary life may continue in spite of everything – maybe a quiet reassurance is being offered. Even for a non-contemporary reader this is nonetheless a satisfactory read.
Hilary White 5/5
Fell Murder by ECR Lorac
British Library Publishing 9780712352048 pbk Jul 2019