Cosy and Not-So-Cosy Crime – E. C. R. Lorac and Ross Macdonald

I have two crime fiction novels to share with you today – both of which were written in the late 1950s, albeit in very different tonal registers. E. C. R. Lorac’s Two-Way Murder is a thoroughly entertaining cosy crime novel, ideal escapism from 21st-century Britain; however, I’m going to start with its not-so-cosy counterpart, Ross Macdonald’s compelling California-based mystery, The Galton Case.

The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald (1959)

Regular readers of this blog may know that I’ve been reading Ross Macdonald’s ‘Lew Archer’ novels in order over the past five or six years. (For those of you who are new to Ross Macdonald, he’s in a similar vein to the great hardboiled detective novelists, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – i.e. a writer whose work transcends the traditional crime fiction genre.)

The Galton Case – the eighth book in the series – sees the world-weary private eye being drawn into a cold case investigation which naturally turns out to be far more complex that it appears at first sight. As a novel, it contains many of Macdonald’s hallmarks: a powerful dysfunctional family; various individuals motivated by greed; and current crimes with a hidden connection to the past. While it’s probably not my favourite book in the series, The Galton Case still makes for a highly compelling read. A very solid entry, barring a couple of caveats regarding the ending.

Mrs Galton, a wealthy widow with a significant heart condition, wishes to reconcile with her estranged son, Anthony Galton, before it is too late. Some twenty years earlier, Anthony Galton disappeared from the family home (together with his pregnant wife and a significant amount of money) following a rift with his mother. In short, Mrs Galton hadn’t approved of her son’s marriage, often the cause of tension in a Lew Archer novel.

The old lady’s lawyer, Gordon Sable, hires Archer to find Anthony, even though he has already been declared legally dead. Mrs Galton, however, remains convinced that her son is still alive, possibly making a living from writing as he had hoped to do at the time of his disappearance.

Despite his initial scepticism about the chances of finding Anthony alive, Archer takes the case; however, just as he is about to get started, a murder takes place, the victim being a rather ill-tempered servant by the name of Culligan, whom Archer had met at Sable’s home. Unsurprisingly, these two cases – the disappearance of Anthony Galton and the murder of Peter Culligan – turn out to be connected, signalling another complex tangle of crimes for Archer to unravel.

As ever with Macdonald, the descriptions of the locations are marvellous, from the melting pot of San Francisco to the comfortable enclaves of California.

Arroyo Park was an economic battleground where managers and professional people matched wits and incomes. The people on Mrs Galton’s Street didn’t know there had been a war. Their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had won it for them; death and taxes were all they had to cope with. (p. 11)

However, what’s particularly interesting about this novel is the psychological aspect – the exploration of human behaviour that takes place as Archer digs deeper. There are questions of identity to be resolved, instances of wish fulfilment and delusion alongside the more traditional motives of resentment and greed.

In Archer, Macdonald has created a highly engaging investigator who veers between pragmatism, sarcasm and compassion – a protagonist the reader can invest in for the duration of the series. While the ending feels a bit rushed, leaving a couple of loose ends unresolved, these are relatively minor quibbles in the scheme of things. In summary – a very solid mystery with some interesting insights into human nature.

Two-Way Murder by E. C. R. Lorac (written in the mid-late 1950s, published in 2021)

While Two-Way Murder is a much lighter, less menacing mystery than The Galton Case, the two novels share some similar characteristics – namely, tangled dysfunctional families and current crimes with potential links to suspicious incidents from the past.

Lorac’s novel – which has the air of a classic Golden Age Mystery – is set in the coastal resort of Fordings in the mid-late 1950s. Local innkeeper Nicholas (Nick) Brent – an ex-Navy man in his early thirties – has offered to drive his friend, the lawyer Ian Macbane, to the Hunt Ball, the major event in Fordings’ social calendar. Macbane is down from London for the Ball, where he hopes to get the opportunity to dance with Dilys Maine, the prettiest girl in the locality. Dilys, however, has a fondness for Michael Reeve, a prickly farmer and landowner whose family has something of a chequered history.

The action gets going towards the end of the Ball when Nick drives Dilys home, just before midnight. It’s a pre-arranged departure, conveniently timed to enable Dilys to get back without her absence being detected – by either her puritanical father, Mr Maine, or the family’s housekeeper, Alice. During their journey home, Nick and Dilys come across a dead body lying in the road, at which point Nick suggests that Dilys should walk home across the fields to avoid being dragged into the inevitable investigations. To complicate matters further, Nick is then attacked while phoning the police to report the dead body. There are further suspicious goings-on too, but I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself should you decide to read the book…

Needless to say, the police suspect the man on the road has been murdered, prompting investigations into various persons of interest in the vicinity and their movements on the night in question. There are some very interesting characters in the mix, including Dilys’ father, a tyrannical man obsessed with keeping a watch on Mr Hoyle, a local landlord whom Maine suspects of smuggling; Michael Reeve, of course, whose house Nicholas Brent was phoning from when he was attacked; and Michael’s elder brother, Norman, who may or may not be the dead body.

One of the things I particularly like about this mystery is the contrast between the different policemen investigating the murder. The initial enquiries are conducted by Inspector Turner, a methodical, practical-minded chap whose insensitivity and disregard for local networks tend to put him at a disadvantage. Inspector Waring, however, adopts a more intuitive approach to the case, his lively and imaginative mind remaining alert to the patterns of human nature. Ian Macbane is another interesting addition to the ‘team’, aiding Inspector Waring (who has been brought in from CID) with a spot of amateur detecting of his own.

In summary, Two-Way Murder is an excellent vintage mystery with a rather clever resolution – eminently believable at that, which isn’t always the case in these things. Attention to detail is key here, with elements of timing, the weather and the geographical layout of the area all playing important roles in pinpointing the culprit. There are some wonderful characters here too, from the likeable Inspector Waring to the thoughtful Ian Macbane to the Maine’s astute housekeeper, Alice. As ever, Lorac does a great job in conveying a sense of the local community and the importance of longstanding grudges. I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a feel for the location and Lorac’s flair for descriptions.

The car had topped the last rise of Bramber Head, the great chalk ridge which jutted out into the Channel; below, the ground dropped steeply to the wide basin of Fairbourne Bay, and the lights of Fordings were stretched out like jewelled necklaces, crossing and intertwining, with coloured lights along the seafront and a blur of chromatic brilliance over the cinema on the pier. (p. 18)

Karen has also written about this novel, including more info on Lorac and the discovery of this book – do take a look! My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.

42 thoughts on “Cosy and Not-So-Cosy Crime – E. C. R. Lorac and Ross Macdonald

  1. madamebibilophile

    These are both authors I mean to read but haven’t got to yet… one day… The Lew Archer sounds incisive in its portrayal of the society even though the ending has a few wobbles. I have Lorac in the TBR and really must get to her as so many bloggers rate her so highly. Perfect reads for a Sunday Jacqui, thank you!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome! The Lorac is terrific – probably one of her best, judging by some of the others I’ve read, although they all seem to have a great sense of place. I’ve seen it described elsewhere as being in a similar style to some of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, which is high praise indeed.

      Reply
  2. mrbooks15

    Lorac is waiting on my TBR, and I know there is some Ross MacDonald amongst my parents’ books–must try them at some point. I see that both authors seem to have a strength in descriptions, which makes me all the more interested in picking them up soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great. You’re all set, then! And yes, there’s some great descriptive writing to be enjoyed here, which always helps to convey a sense of time and place. It’s good to see so much interest in the Loracs following their inclusion in the British Library series as they’re very entertaining indeed, ideal ‘escapist’ reading for the summer.

      Reply
      1. mrbooks15

        I only came across Lorac fairly recently, and am glad there’s so much to explore in her writings; I hadn’t realised she wrote under pseudonyms as well

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes! I’ve yet to read any of her Carol Carnac novels, but they do sound pretty good. Crossed Skis (also published in the BLCC series) has been picking up some great reviews – one for the future, I think!

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Sorry to be tempting you with further potential additions to your TBR list, but E. C. R. Lorac is very much worth reading – one of my favourite Crime Classics authors (along with John Bude).

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Thanks for the mention Jacqui – like you, I thought this Lorac was an excellent read. And I totally agree about the contrast between the two detectives – they were chalk and cheese and brilliantly portrayed, as were all the characters really. Can’t believe this one was so nearly lost!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! What great work on behalf of Martin Edwards and the BLCC in rescuing it from obscurity. As I think you mentioned in your post, the story of its eventual publication is a fascinating one, making it a very satisfying read from more than one perspective!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, please do! She’s an excellent writer, and this would be a great one to start with – a very entertaining mystery with a satisfying conclusion.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    I have Two Way Murder to look forward to, and have moved it up the tbr now. I like mysteries that explore the psychology of behavior, so much more interesting than just whodunit. The Ross Mcdonald prob isn’t for me, I think you know I don’t get on with that hardboiled style usually.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you will love Two-Way Murder, Ali! For a mystery written in the 1950s, it has quite a vintage feel, almost 1930s-ish in tone and style. The sort of England where people say ‘super’, ‘frightful’ and ‘damned bad luck’ all the time!

      Reply
  5. Proudkea

    Hi Jacqui
    So pleased people are rediscovering Lorac. I’d recommend ‘Fell Murder’. For me, she captures her environments beautifully. Her books are also great snapshots of the era.

    I love Ross Macdonald. He has such a way with words. Likewise, the other MacDonald, John D.
    Susan

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan! I read Fell Murder last year and loved it. Funnily enough, it may well have been the book that kickstarted my interest in Lorac in the first place, partly because her sense of place / environment was so good. She writes particularly well about details of day-to-day rural life, the rhythms and principles of working the land, and the blend of beauty and ruggedness of the countryside. A very fine writer indeed. :)

      Reply
  6. Jane

    I haven’t heard of Ross Macdonald, but I love such a deep sense of place and so have added him to my list! And a Lorac I haven’t read either but will get around to that very quickly! The ’50’s seems an interesting time in crime writing – as the classic, flirty crimes seem to give way to something harder, and not quite so cosy, as you show with these two!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great! I think both authors are well worth trying to see how you get on. All the Loracs I’ve read so far have been great, and she writes well about various settings, cities and countryside alike. And you’re right about a slightly harder edge creeping into some of the crime fiction from the 1950s. In some respects, Two-Way Murder is quite 1930s-ish in style (people say ‘super’ and ‘damned bad luck’ quite a lot!); but then again, it’s possible to see some of the changes in society coming through. :)

      Reply
  7. Jason Half

    A delightful paired review, and very well-timed with my own reading of these two authors. I just read my first Lorac last month, Crossed Skis (published under her other pseudonym, Carol Carnac). And my only problem with the amazing Ross MacDonald is that I return to reread each of his titles before reviewing them instead of moving on to the next one! My last one was The Ivory Grin (1952), an incredible meditation on poisoned heritage and poisoned race relations in 1950s America. I’m looking forward to The Galton Case when I arrive at it. Thank you for your great reviews!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the reviews. It’s interesting to hear you say that you’ve just read Crossed Skis, as that’s probably the one I’d like to try next (especially as it’s one of Rivett’s ‘Carnac’ novels). And The Ivory Grin is great, isn’t it? I remember it pretty well due to the race relations aspect – poisoned heritage is spot on!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great to hear. I’ve only read three or four Loracs to date, but this one definitely stands out. It’s such good fun, and the resolution feels credible (which isn’t always the case in these vintage mysteries)!

      Reply
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  9. buriedinprint

    “Arroyo Park was an economic battleground where managers and professional people matched wits and incomes.”

    This made me laugh! I’ve left a comment about this on Karen’s blog not long ago, so you may have seen me mention there, but I found it interesting that, when you crime-lovers over there started into these series, none of them were available over here; I would check periodically at the library but to no avail. Earlier this year I saw that they have begun to order/shelve quite a few of them now. And, of course, now there are ever so many of them. Am no longer sure what to hope for on that count. It would quickly outpace even your Archer project! But, ultimately, I’m grateful…I guess? ;)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes! It’s a telling quote, isn’t it? Definitely indicative of a certain kind of resident in the Park.

      It’s good to hear that the British Library Crime Classics mysteries are starting to get some traction over there. Are they with a different publisher / imprint on your side of the pond? Poisoned Pen Press? Is that right, or am I getting them mixed up with something else?

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        Yes, you’re quite right: that’s it! And I see that Handheld Press is now available (well, a few so far) which also tickles me. *feeling lucky*

        Reply
  10. Julé Cunningham

    It’s always so exciting when another of Rivett’s books makes it into print again, she’s so very good. I recently read ‘Crossed Skis’ and loved it, especially since apparently she knew of what she wrote about.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great to hear about Crossed Skis, particularly as it’s mystery I’d very much like to read! Rivett (or Lorac / Carnac, to use her pennames) is definitely one of the jewels in the BLCC crown. As you say, her books are very good indeed – typically strong on atmosphere and characterisation with a clear sense of place.

      Reply
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  12. Marsha D

    I have added both of these to my summer TBR pile – Thank you so much! I am so happy I found this blog. . I have to recommend a book that I recently finished called “The Glass Alibi” by John Burns. This is an “investigation gone wrong” crime noir fiction that really delivers on all fronts. I loved the main character (a bored and cynical “gumshoe” named Nick Sloan) and the premise is very unique – there is a really cool tie-in to the seven deadly sins.. I really enjoyed wondering who or what Nick would run into next as he finds himself picking his way through the seedy upper tiers of San Francisco’s “high society” I never felt like any of it was out of the realm of possibility and the characters presented felt like they could have been pulled straight out of the time period (1980s). It is one of those books where anything is possible and you never know what will come next! A really fun and thoughtful summer read! Lots of dark humor too. I think you should definitely check it out

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks for the recommendation! I will definitely check it out. John Burns is a new name to me, but the book sounds interesting, so thank you for the tip. I’m glad you like the sound of the Lorac and the Ross Macdonald. I’ve read quite a few titles by both authors and would definitely recommend them to fans of vintage crime fiction.

      Reply

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