These Names Make Clues by E. C. R. Lorac

The British author Edith Caroline Rivett – who wrote under the pseudonyms E. C. R. Lorac, Carol Carnac and Mary Le Bourne – is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of Golden Age mysteries. The British Library have reissued several of her novels in their Crime Classics series, and while These Names Make Clues (1937) isn’t quite as strong as some of the others I’ve read, there’s certainly a very intriguing puzzle for readers to enjoy.

The novel opens with an invitation to a treasure hunt party, which is to be hosted by the London-based publisher Graham Coombe and his sister, Susan. The Coombes have invited Chief Inspector Macdonald to attend the gathering, urging the detective to test his wits against the thriller writers and other assorted luminaries attending the event. At first, Macdonald is somewhat reluctant to accept, fearing that he might look a bit foolish if trumped by an amateur sleuth. Nevertheless, he ends up taking the bait, albeit on a whim.

The action swiftly moves to the party itself at Caroline House, a rather well-to-do property in London’s Marylebone, in the spring of 1936. Macdonald is one of ten or so guests at the gathering, each of whom is assigned a literary pseudonym to adopt for the night.

At first, the treasure hunt proceeds according to plan, with each guest working on their individual clues while also wondering about the other players’ identities. (To the best of the Coombes’ knowledge, the guests haven’t met before, so their true identities also remain something of a mystery – to one another at least.)

Just as the party is in full swing, the game is rudely interrupted by a blackout, seemingly due to a blown fuse. Candles are lit as a temporary measure, but when the guests reassemble to take stock of the situation, one member of the party is missing. Before long, the body of ‘Samuel Pepys’, aka the crime writer Andrew Gardien, is discovered by Macdonald at the back of the house. 

So Samuel Pepys was Andrew Gardien, author of a dozen detective stories. The “Master Mechanic” the reviewers called him, owing to his ingenuity in inventing methods of killing based on simple mechanical contraptions. “Heath Robinson murders,” another reviewer had styled them, involving bits of cord and wire and counterpoises, all nicely calculated to tidy themselves up when their work was done. Springs and levers and pulleys had been used with wonderful effect by the quick brain which had once animated that still body. (p. 44)

Heart failure appears to be the most likely cause of Gardien’s death, but naturally Macdonald is suspicious. There are scorch marks on the dead man’s hands, possibly indicating an electric shock of some sort, although quite how that might have happened is not immediately apparent. The sighting of a mysterious grey-haired man is another puzzling factor, with two of the guests claiming to have seen this man before the blackout happened. The identity of the grey-haired man is unknown. However, there is a suggestion that he bore a vague resemblance to Gardien’s literary agent, Mardon-Elliott, who was not on the official guest list for the party, as far as we can tell.

The picture is further complicated when Mardon-Elliott himself is found dead in his office the following morning. Once again, the circumstances are suspicious, with various clues pointing to Gardien as the potential perpetrator – a theoretical possibility, especially given the degree of uncertainty around the time of Elliott’s death. As Macdonald subsequently muses, the two crimes appear to be linked, with Gardien’s murder pointing to Elliott as the perpetrator, and Elliot’s to Gardien – a puzzling situation indeed, possibly designed to throw detectives off the scent.

“Yet here we have the murder of Elliott – signed Gardien – so to speak, and the murder of Gardien with an indication of Elliott. The probability is that the same person killed both and arranged indications that they killed one another, doing it in such a way as to suggest a thriller writer is the perpetrator – on account of the funny business involved – from which suggestion it seems reasonable to argue by contraries that a thriller writer had nothing to do with it.” (p. 136)

By now, Macdonald is well and truly in his element, interviewing the various attendees to figure out their movements on the night of the party. As ever, this likeable detective is a pleasure to shadow as he goes about his business, ruminating on various details that other investigators might miss.

Towards the end of the story, the action shifts from London to the Berkshire countryside with Macdonald’s friend, the enthusiastic journalist Peter Vernon also getting embroiled in the case.

While These Names… is a little short on the immersive sense of place Lorac employs so well in several of her other mysteries – a missed opportunity given her skills in capturing rural landscapes (as in Fell Murder) and wartime London settings (as in Checkmate to Murder) – it does feature some very interesting characters, not least the razor-sharp historian Valerie Woodstock.

The girl’s shrewd eyes met Macdonald’s full. Her appearance might indicate the society miss, interested only in clothes and a good time, but her expression showed a very different personality. Valerie Woodstock had recently leapt into fame for an erudite piece of historical research, and Macdonald knew that a first-class brain was hidden behind that frivolous exterior. (p. 51)

Readers would do well to pay close attention to the characters’ names in this intriguing mystery – a point that is easier said than done given the liberal use of pseudonyms running through the book. Nevertheless, fans of cryptic crosswords and anagrams will likely enjoy this one, especially given the relevance of the novel’s title, These Names Make Clues.

As ever, the novel comes with an excellent introduction from the writer and series consultant Martin Edwards, who explains a little more about Lorac/Rivett and her election to the Detection Club. It’s lovely to see this engaging novel back in print after a long period in the wilderness. My thanks to The British Library for kindly providing a review copy. (If it’s of interest, you can buy the book here via this link to Bookshop.org.)

24 thoughts on “These Names Make Clues by E. C. R. Lorac

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I wondered if it was trying to be too clever for its own good at one point — especially with the red herrings around reciprocal murders, if that makes any sense? It also loses focus somewhat when the mystery moves out of London. That said, I still enjoyed it, despite these little drawbacks!

      Reply
  1. Daphna Kedmi

    Thank you Jacqui. I read your reviews of the other novels as well, and I’m really curious to read at least one of them. If I were to read just one of her novels, which would you recommend?

    Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    It’s fun, isn’t it, Jacqui, but I agree it isn’t her strongest. As Martin Edwards points out in the intro, it doesn’t quite play fair with the reader – I don’t think you could possibly work out the solution despite close reading. But it’s entertaining in its own right, and she creates a wonderful collection of characters!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I’d forgotten about that element of the introduction! He’s right, I think. It *is* a bit obscure and tricky to figure out. To be honest, I’m quite late in writing this up…but even though it’s only two months since I read it I’m struggling to recall the ending. (The party and other pre-Berkshire developments are all quite fresh in my mind, but the solution to the mystery not so much!) Still, an enjoyable read, if not Lorac’s best.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there are other, more satisfying Loracs out there, should you be minded to try one. Two-Way Murder is probably my favourite so far – a really entertaining mystery that ‘plays fair’ with the reader.

      Reply
  3. Julé Cunningham

    This is one of the BLCCs I’ve really been most looking forward to, but it seems to be stuck somewhere over the Atlantic or something is going on with Poisoned Pen Press. Meanwhile I’m enjoying it vicariously through everyone’s posts.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I hope it gets a US release soon. It’s actually very enjoyable for the most part, but the last third takes some of that shine off, particularly with the chase. I’ll be interested to see what you think, once you get hold of it!

      Reply
  4. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  5. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Although I enjoy cozies (and really love the BLCCs, of which I have several) this hasn’t been a great year for me reading them; too many distractions, I’m afraid. This one sounds entertaining and I definitely want to check out the writer, but I think I’ll follow your advice to Dapha and begin with Two-Way Murder (just skimmed your review of it and it looks like something I’d enjoy very much).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, totally! I wouldn’t recommend ‘Clues’ as being the best place to start with Lorac. ‘Two-Way Murder’ is great, and seems to have been very well received by other bloggers I follow, so it’s probably a safer bet. I also really enjoyed ‘Fell Murder’ and ‘Fire in the Thatch’, two of Lorac’s rural mysteries. So either of those would be great choices if you’d prefer something with a countryside setting and a strong sense of place. Lorac writes so well about the details of day-to-day rural life, the rhythms and principles of working the land, the blend of beauty and ruggedness of the landscape etc. etc.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: My Book Notes: These Names Make Clues, 1937 (Robert MacDonald #12) by E. C. R. Lorac – A Crime is Afoot

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