Mini Reviews – Barbara Comyns and E. C. R Lorac

A couple of additional mini reviews of recent reads – this time novels by the wonderfully off-kilter Barbara Comyns and the British crime writer, E. C. R. Lorac. Enjoy!

Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns (1987)

I discovered this little gem of a novel a few months ago via Heaven Ali’s excellent review, which you can find here. It’s very much in the style of one of Comyns’ earlier novels, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), a book that made my ‘best of’ list back in 2017.

Like ‘Spoons’, Mr Fox features a rather childlike young woman who relates her story in an unassuming, conversational style. As the novel opens, Caroline Seymore and her three-year-old daughter, Jenny, have just been offered a place to live by their ‘friend’, Mr Fox, who makes his money via various underhand dealings – mostly tarting up dodgy cars plus some black-market activities here and there. (The novel is set at the start of WW2.)

Caroline has been on her own with Jenny for the past three years, trying to make a go of sub-letting rooms in a London house having inherited the lease after her mother’s death. Unfortunately for Caroline, the bailiffs and debt-collectors are rapidly closing in, leaving her virtually no other option but to accept Mr Fox’s offer however awful that may be.

I knew so little about him [Mr Fox] really. Perhaps he was an awful vicious man, or maybe he was cruel and bad-tempered or mean; perhaps he hoarded things like string and candle-ends in boxes under his bed, or he might even get drunk and beat people. Then I remembered all my creditors and thought perhaps I’d better risk all these things. Nothing could be worse than all those summonses and bowler-hatted debt collectors. (pp. 27-28)

Mr Fox is an odd little man; kindly and generous one minute but prone to moody behaviour the next. In particular, he finds Jenny’s constant chattering somewhat annoying, frequently disturbing the household when he wants to enjoy a rest. While Caroline doesn’t share a bed with Mr Fox, she is expected to cook his meals – another aspect her benefactor finds fault with. As a consequence, Caroline often feels sad and homesick, even though she has no other home to speak of. There are times when Caroline longs to escape from Mr Fox, but realistically there is nowhere else where she and Jenny can go.

With the advent of war looming on the horizon, Mr Fox decides they all need to get out of London for a while, so he shuts down his dodgy garage, securing a job in an aircraft factory instead. But life in the isolated town of Straws proves terribly grim for Caroline; it’s a shabby, dismal place where no one seems to have any spark or money.

I became more and more depressed and never bothered to carry my gas mask any more. It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws. It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable. He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all. (p. 76)

As Ali has already written about this slim yet very affecting book, I’m not going to dwell on the plot, only to say that we follow Caroline and Jenny as they try to make their way in an uncertain world – sometimes aided and abetted by Mr Fox, other times not. Instead, I’ll try to highlight a few things I liked about the novel, just to give you a feel for the style.

Like Sophia in Spoons, Caroline is a very engaging narrator, the childlike naivety and innocence adding greatly to her charm. There are times when Caroline’s matter-of-fact tone of voice may seem at odds with the horror of the situations she is describing, but in practice this style of delivery makes her predicament feel all the more horrific. (In an effort to earn her keep with Mr Fox, Caroline spends a terrible week working as a dance hostess in a ghastly club, a role she is ill-equipped for with her innocence and simplicity.)

In spite of the rather bleak subject matter – poverty, homelessness, a desperate reliance on the kindness of others, particularly men – Comyns lightens the tone with some nicely judged humour. There are several moments when Caroline is unintentionally funny, coming out with the most wonderful turns of phrase such as this description of a man who invites her for dinner after they meet in the club.

I came through the main entrance of Rules after getting rather entangled in the swing doors. But there he was, looking like a bulldog crossed with a hot-cross bun. (p. 51)

Comyns paints an authentic picture of wartime London, replete with air-raid sirens, explosions and bombed-out houses. There is a truly terrifying scene in which Caroline has to run barefoot while shielding Mr Fox’s dog, desperately trying to find shelter during a chaotic raid. Moreover, what comes through very strongly from the narrative is the fluid nature of civilian life during the war. Caroline and Jenny are almost always on the move, barely able to stay more than a few months in any single place. The transient feel of everything – jobs, houses, possessions, even life itself – is both palpable and striking.

I absolutely loved this little novel by Comyns, which is by turns funny, evocative, honest and poignant. The ending in particular is very affecting, perfectly capturing the opportunistic nature of Mr Fox – a man forever on the make, constantly on the lookout for the next lucrative deal.

Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac (1946)

I’d been looking to read E. C. R. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) for a while, particularly following positive reports by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and one or two other readers on Twitter. So, I was delighted to find a copy of one her novels, Fire in the Thatch, in a local charity shop fairly recently, especially as it was in near-perfect condition. Happily, my first experience of this author’s work was a great success, definitely one I’d recommend to others.

In short, Fire in the Thatch is a very entertaining entrant in the British Library Crime Classics series, a traditional Golden-Age novel to brighten a dull weekend. When Little Thatch cottage is destroyed in a fire, killing its new tenant, the reclusive army veteran Nicholas Vaughan, the dogged Chief Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to investigate.

Set in the beautiful countryside of Devon, this is a thoroughly intriguing mystery with interesting, distinctive characters (many of whom are shadowy), and a deep-rooted sense of place. Lorac demonstrates a real appreciation of the farming community’s passion for the landscape and traditional customs. These aspects of the novel are beautifully portrayed. The writing is excellent too, very engaging and precise.

Hayley at Desperate Reader has posted a lovely review of this, as has Guy, so I shall direct you to their posts. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye out for more books by Lorac, particularly those featuring Macdonald, the rather engaging detective at the heart of Thatch – Lorac’s compelling portrayal of this determined character is one of the book’s many delights.

24 thoughts on “Mini Reviews – Barbara Comyns and E. C. R Lorac

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m always a little wary as to whether the British Library will be able to maintain the quality of these Crime Classics with each new tranche of releases, but I’m happy to say that this one is a winner. A very enjoyable little mystery indeed!

  1. Brian Joseph

    Both books sound appealing. I think that my wife would really like Fire in the Thatch a lot as she likes that kind of mystery. The locale that it is set in also makes me want to read it. Rural settings can be so atmospheric.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the setting is very well captured here. It’s plain to see just how important the land is to the local community – they feel very protective towards it.

  2. Radz Pandit

    Ah, Mr Fox seems like classic Comyns fare, which means I know I’m going to like it:) I don’t have this one and a quick search tells me that’s it is not readily available. I do hope it gets reissued sometime soon.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’d love it – if only it were still in print! (I had to hunt around a bit for a reasonably priced copy of the Methuen edition when searching for it online.) We’ll just have to hope that those lovely people at NYRB or Virago decide to reissue it at some point. You never know…

  3. realthog

    Barbara Comyns is yet another author I should clearly be looking out for — yet another to add to the list, in other words. You keep doing this to me, Jacqui!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Sorry…I’m considering it payback for all those wonderful films you keep dangling in front of me over at Noirish! (My ‘to watch’ list has been growing like topsy ever since I began following you!) Comyns is an acquired taste for sure, but she’s definitely worth a try. Her style takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’re on board there’s much to admire.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    The Loracs are great, aren’t they? Definitely one of the best finds from the BLCCs. And I must read more Comyns – I own several but I’ve only read one I think. She’s definitely an original! :D

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I definitely lucked out in the charity shop with the Lorac. A very interesting mystery all things considered.

      I’ll be interested to see how you get on with Comyns whenever you decide to give her another go. She’s not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, but something tells me you might enjoy her!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved Mr Fox, such a great little find – thank you for alerting me to it in the first place. The fact that it resembled Spoons in tone/feel was a definite point in its favour. I wasn’t very keen on The Vet’s Daughter, a rare DNF for me, but I’m back on track with Comyns after the delights of Mr Fox!

  5. madamebibilophile

    These both sound a joy. Like you, I loved Our Spoons Came From Woolworths so Mr Fox is a must-read! And I’m consciously trying to read some lighter books which definitely means some GA detective novels, so I must give Lorac a try.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d love Mr Fox, particularly given the similarities in style between Caroline’s narrative and that of Sophia in Spoons. It’s definitely worth keeping a eye out for it in the charity shops – or online, depending on your preferences. (I think there are still some copies available from the likes of Abe.)

      As for the Lorac, I’m really glad I gave it a try. I do worry about the British Library’s ability to maintain a decent level of quality across all these Crime Classics releases, but thankfully that wasn’t an issue here.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would strongly suggest that you start with Our Spoons if you’re ever minded to give her a try. It’s probably more accessible than her other big hitter, The Vet’s Daughter.

  6. banff1972

    As you know, I love Comyns, and this one sounds great. (And I strongly sense a link between her and my current love, Esther Freud.) I recently read Lorac’s Murder by Matchlight, but it didn’t real do it for me. I’ve read a few of these British Classics mysteries (I love the covers), but I just never seem to quite get on with them.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d love Mr Fox. Well worth snapping up if you can source a copy on your side of the pond. That’s an interesting comparison with Esther Freud, a writer I’ve never read (although I am familiar with the film adaptation of Hideous Kinky). Oddly enough, the writer Comyns most reminds me of is Muriel Spark, possibly because the worlds their characters inhabit are somewhat skewed – recognisable yet strangely off-kilter!

      1. banff1972

        I think the Venn diagram would be Freud and Spark in the big circles, Comyns in the overlap. Freud doesn’t have the skewed world you rightly describe, but she does have the resignation in the face of terrible things, the almost zany muddling through that you get in, say, Spoons.

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