Fell Murder and Checkmate to Murder – two vintage mysteries by E. C. R. Lorac

Over the past few years, the British Library have been reissuing some of E. C. R. Lorac’s vintage mysteries as part of their marvellous Crime Classics series. (I jotted down a few thoughts about Fire in Thatch last summer, a book I very much enjoyed.) Lorac was the main pen-name adopted by Edith Caroline Rivett, who produced more than 60 novels between the 1930s and 1950s. Many of them featured the perceptive detective Chief Inspector Macdonald of the CID, including the two I’m reviewing here.

Fell Murder (1944)

The setting for this charming, unhurried mystery is the Lancashire countryside in the midst of World War Two, where the elderly Robert Garth is the head of one of the leading farming families in the district. Robert – a stubborn, hot-headed man by nature – is rather set in his ways, eschewing progressive developments in favour of more traditional farming methods. The old man’s obstinacy is a source of frustration for his daughter Marion, an industrious, hard-working woman who is keen to ensure that the estate remains profitable.

Also living at the farm are Robert’s second son, Charles, recently returned to England from Malaya, having lost pretty much everything; and a younger son, Malcolm, who is considered to be something of a weakling, more interested in poetry than working the land. The household is completed by Elizabeth Meldon, a switched-on Land Girl who helps with the farming activities.

Elizabeth Meldon studied her Garth kinsfolk with a cool dispassionate judgement. She saw the grim obstinacy of old Robert, for ever setting his face against any change: the energy and optimism of Marion, intent on learning new methods of farming and developing the land to its greatest fertility. In addition to the tug of war between Marion and her father was the constant irritation of the two ill-assorted brothers—Charles from Malaya, accustomed to native labour and as many cocktails as he cared to swallow, and Malcolm who was by nature more a poet than a farmer. “Never such a family of incompatibles,” said Elizabeth. (p. 32)

The novel opens with the return of Richard Garth, Robert’s oldest son, who left the district twenty-five years earlier following a disagreement with his father. The old patriarch had disapproved of his son’s choice of wife (now deceased), a rift that prompted Richard to move to Alberta to start a new life. Now Richard is back in England on a short break between sea voyages, not to see his family but to reconnect with the land he still loves very dearly. Nevertheless, when Robert Garth is found dead in one of the farm’s outbuildings, the sudden reappearance of the prodigal son seems all too suspicious…

Before long, Chief Inspector Macdonald of the CID is called in to investigate what clearly appears to be a murder. As is typically the case in these mysteries, there are plenty of potential suspects with various reasons for wanting the old man out the way – from Marion with her desire to have a greater say in running the farm to Richard with his long-standing grudge against his father to Charles who seems ill-suited to life on the estate.

What makes this mystery particularly engaging is the way Lorac portrays the farming community and local landscape. She writes lovingly about the details of day-to-day rural life during the war years, the rhythms and principles of working the land, and the blend of beauty and ruggedness of the terrain.

In Macdonald, Lorac has created a character with a deep understanding of country folk, particularly their fierce sense of community and suspicion of strangers. The detective seems to have an innate ability to connect with the locals, adapting his approach to gain their understanding and trust.

“…As I see it, coming here as a stranger, this crime is conditioned by the place. To understand the one you’ve got to study the other.” (p. 136)

In summary then, Fell Murder, is an enjoyable, leisurely mystery with a strong sense of place. Some readers might find the pace a bit slow and understated in tension, but I found it all rather charming. A very worthwhile entrant in the BLCC series.

Checkmate to Murder (1944)

Another wartime mystery, this one set in Hampstead on a miserable, foggy night.

As the novel opens, Lorac sets the scene in an artist’s studio where five individuals have gathered together for the evening. At one end of the main room, the temperamental artist Bruce Manaton is painting a portrait of his friend, André Delaunier, an actor dressed as a Cardinal, resplendent in his scarlet robes. Meanwhile, at the other end of the studio, two men are playing chess, wholly absorbed in the strategy of their game. Also present is Manaton’s sister, Rosanne, who shares the studio with her brother. Roseanne is preparing a meal for the party in the adjacent kitchen, slipping in and out to check on the blackout curtains and suchlike. It’s a scene somewhat reminiscent of the set-up in Hitchock’s Rope, where the housekeeper, Mrs Wilson, is helping with the preparations for the dinner party that forms the film’s centrepiece.

The Manatons’ gathering is interrupted by a Special Constable – a rather unpleasant chap named Verraby – who claims to have uncovered a murder on the premises. The victim is Mr Folliner, the owner of the building that houses the studio. Moreover, Verraby believes he has apprehended the perpetrator – Neil Folliner, the old man’s great-nephew, a Canadian soldier who just happened to be on the premises at the time.

At first, Verraby believes it is an open-and-shut case with Neil Folliner being the only possible suspect. However, when Chief Inspector Macdonald in brought in to investigate, the net of potential perpetrators widens, with the activities in the artist’s studio soon becoming the focus of attention. There are reports of old Mr Folliner having accumulated a lot of money before his death, all stashed away in a cash box in the house. However, there is no sign of the loot in the old man’s flat or on the alleged perpetrator, thereby creating another perplexing detail to add to the mix.

This is a very clever mystery in which points of detail prove crucial to unravelling the crime. From the position of the guests in the studio to the history of the building’s occupants to the weather and background noises – all these things play their part in the puzzle.

In Macdonald, Lorac has created a very engaging character, a detective who combines a thorough, dogged approach with a fair degree of humanity and sympathy. It is a delight to watch him go about his work. During his investigations, Macdonald is ably assisted by his colleagues, Jenkins and Reeves, both of whom add an element of camaraderie to the inquiry.

Finally, the wartime setting is beautifully evoked, creating an environment of suspicion, uncertainty and constrained resources – a situation well-suited to opportunistic crime. All in all, this is an absorbing, atmospheric mystery for a dark and foggy night – a most enjoyable contrast to the gentleness of Fell Murder.

My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing review copies. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via these links here and here to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

24 thoughts on “Fell Murder and Checkmate to Murder – two vintage mysteries by E. C. R. Lorac

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, precisely. Fell is a lovely leisurely read, a fitting contrast to some of the city-based mysteries in the BLCC series. Plus, the fact that Lorac really understands the tone and rhythm of countryside gives it a grounding in authenticity. You’d like it, I think.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Same here! Alongside John Bude, Lorac is one of my favourite BLCC authors, her mysteries are well-written with a strong sense of atmosphere/place. Just what I like in this sort of comfort read!

  1. Jane

    I haven’t read any BLCC’s yet but Lorac is at the top of the list. Checkmate to Murder sounds particularly good, I love a miserable foggy night for murder!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d say it’s probably the stronger of the two, so if you’re going to pick one then Checkmate would be as good as any. Plus, it’s ideal for this time of year, particularly as the nights are drawing in. :)

  2. heavenali

    Oh lovely, this sounds very much like the kind of mystery I like. I have several unread BLCC though not this one. I love the sound of the setting in particular. Great escapism.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’d like these mysteries for sure as both settings are very well-crafted. They’re actually published as two separate books (unlike the recent John Bude which was a 2-for-1). Still good value though, especially given the quality of Lorac’s writing.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, yes. The rural setting is very nicely done. She’s a writer who understands the rhythms of life in the countryside – the importance of community and unhurried pace.

  3. Brian Joseph

    Lorac wrote a lot of books in his time. There is something to be said about unhurried mysteries. They may be the best kind.

    I think that my wife might really like these books so I will tell her about your review.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, although he is in fact a she! I wonder if Edith Caroline Rivett deliberately used the initials as part of her pen name to avoid redisclosing her gender, possibly to counteract any prejudices or pigeonholing of women writers at the time?

  4. madamebibilophile

    I’ve not read any Lorac yet but she’s so popular in the blogosphere that she’s definitely on my radar. Slow and understated is actually very appealing right now, when so much feels relentless!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, completely! It’s actually a real please to read something leisurely, especially when real life feels so stressful and hectic. I think you’ll enjoy Lorac – definitely an author to look out for once the charity shops open up again!

  5. Caroline

    They both sound excellent. I like it when crime novels aren’t too fast paced. Those pagturner ones can actually make me a bit nervous.
    I think I like the sound of the second one even more.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Checkmate is probably the stronger of the two, but they’re both engaging and well-written. As you say, there’s something very enjoyable about these more gentle mysteries, especially at a time when our external world is so unpredictable and fast-paced.

  6. BuriedInPrint

    These must look so nice, all gathered up in a lot and displayed together on a bookshelf. Whenever I see mention of them, I wish that they were more readily available here. And, yet, perhaps it’s just as well. They’re probably quite addictive!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, they’re beautifully produced – and, as you quite rightly suspect, very addictive. At first, I was a little worried that the publishers might not be able to maintain a high level of quality across the series as a whole, but that doesn’t appear to have been too much of an issue so far…

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