Well, the title gives it away, a murder in the mill-race – or is it? This is the modern reprint of a 1952 publication – Lorac setting the tale, like her others, in rural Devon away from the urban grime. Dr Raymond Ferens, a GP, and his wife Ann will settle in the small village of Millham in the Moor. They rent the Dower House, close to the “big house”, the church and Gramayre, a small children’s home run by Miss Torrington. Otherwise known as “Sister Monica”, she is readily described as saintly as she looks after a cluster of small children with a small staff – many “rescued” teenagers. She will be found dead in the mill-race a year after one of these girls was also found drowned there, this time “the Yard” will be called in. Enter Chief Inspector Macdonald and sidekick DI Reeves.
The relatively recent arrival of the Ferens means that alongside the death the issue of living in a small village community is explored – how it hangs together, what are the unwritten rules and what it will tolerate and for how long. It will be hinted that aberrant behaviour will be dealt with – but maybe not immediately, rather on a slower time scale that the wheels of official “justice”.
The supposed details of the death should be relatively obvious – as indeed was apparently the case with the earlier death too. Examination will prove otherwise. But the novel following the procedural of outside police examining people new to them and building “evidence” from scratch can be a good way for an author to introduce various village characters to the reader, albeit most of them not in great depth. But it is a good way nonetheless to draw the reader along. The underlying police assessment of how and where the dead “Sister” died allows a picture of the Devon countryside to emerge. For the modern reader, too, there are the attitudes and mores of a generation gone.
It is of interest that the Ferens, new to the village, instinctively dislike the saintly Sister M. But, other than receiving hints that she retaliated strongly against the other newcomer (and estate manager) raising concerns about her, they will not act. All is not as it seems. The second death trips the more intensive police investigation. The community will try and persuade them that this death too is an accident. But eventually the full truth of who, how, and what will be revealed.
If you like reprints of older detective novels then this should be one for you. It has a good sense of time, people and place. It also meets the author’s brief to show a closed community and how it functions – but the possible price of the reticence and the operation of a policy of “being private in a very public place”. With the unravelling background of the characters and actions it also makes it harder to spot the murderer too soon. In reality, of course, murder is not a great drama involving super people. It will rarely come out of nothing. But it is an unfortunate aberration, often sordid, that builds from life and impacts on the immediate victims.
But behind the murder investigation is also an exploration of how an influential but unpleasant woman, not really admired or liked, gains a positive public reputation and is allowed to operate in a position of power over others who are vulnerable and require the fuller support of the wider community. That is not an “historical” issue but is one that is timeless and one that many of us face on a regular basis at work or elsewhere, even though mill races are now in short supply.
Hilary White 5/5
Murder in the Mill-Race by E.C.R. Lorac
British Library Publishing 9780712352680 pbk May 2019