Over the past few years, the British Library has been doing a splendid job in reissuing various vintage mysteries by the English writer Edith Caroline Rivett – mostly under her main pen name E. C. R. Lorac, but also the excellent Crossed Skis, which Rivett wrote as Carol Carnac. First published in 1936, Post After Post-Mortem is another very enjoyable addition to the list – an intriguing, complex mystery with a psychological edge.
Central to this novel are the Surrays, a highly successful family of intellectuals from Oxfordshire. Each of the five Surray children is a high achiever in their chosen field, from the eldest, Richard, the brilliant psychiatrist, to the youngest, Naomi, who has just been awarded a First in Classics. The middle daughter, Ruth – a critically-acclaimed writer – is as prolific as the other Surrays, with several books under her belt. Having just completed her latest manuscript, Ruth is thinking of taking a little break from the stresses and strains of a literary life. So, when a family birthday prompts the Surray clan to gather at their Oxfordshire home of Upwood, Ruth decides to stay with her parents once the gathering is over.
Richard, however, is a little worried about Ruth’s mental well-being, having spotted the signs of potential trouble ahead. As such, he is hoping that Ruth will accompany their mother, Mrs Surray, on a walking holiday in Europe. However, before their plans can be finalised, there is a literary gathering at Upwood – an event that turns to tragedy when Ruth is found dead in her bed the following morning.
At first, the cause of death appears to be a clear case of suicide. A box of sleeping tablets is found on Ruth’s bedside table, along with a suicide note and a newly altered will (signed but not witnessed). It seems that Ruth had been under significant strain before her death, and Richard is especially keen to avoid any additional distress for the family through undue speculation about the circumstances. After all, what’s the point in delving into Ruth’s past history or her state of mind in the weeks leading up to the tragedy when the cause of death seems so unequivocal?
Richard Surray’s one desire at that moment was the instinct of a physician to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. He feared desperately that other lives might be involved in this web of emotional confusion, as he foresaw fresh misery—for his mother and father and sister—if certain possibilities were made public, were dragged into the searchlight of popular curiosity… (p. 58)
With no other pertinent information emerging at the Inquest, the Coroner concludes that Ruth died from an overdose of barbiturates, noting a verdict of suicide in the records. Case closed, or so it seems. However, when Richard returns to his rooms in Bloomsbury, he finds a letter from Ruth, posted on the night of her death, in which she appears quite jolly and upbeat, full of grand plans for the week ahead. Hardly the kind of note that someone would have written had they been on the verge of taking their own life.
After some soul searching and wrestling with his conscience, Richard decides to show the letter to a trusted acquaintance, Chief Inspector Macdonald, a familiar figure to regular readers of Lorac’s mysteries. Naturally, when Macdonald sees the letter, his suspicions are aroused, and in time he is officially appointed as lead detective in the case…
“…You [Richard] argue—quite rightly, to my thinking—that something happened to her [Ruth] after she had written that letter to you. It might have been something which altered her whole outlook, and caused her to commit suicide. It might be something totally different which alters the entire case, so that the verdict of suicide is no longer tenable. One thing is certain—the evidence produced [at the Inquest] was incomplete and consequently misleading. It has to be reconsidered.” (p. 80)
The deeper Macdonald delves into Ruth’s life and movements before her death, the more he feels that vital information is being withheld, most notably by various members of the Surray family. On the one hand, it could be argued that Richard is trying to protect his mother, Mrs Surray, from further distress; but on the other, he (or another member of the family) might be concealing something for more sinister reasons.
She [Mrs Surray] had resented the Chief Inspector’s presence and the reiteration of those questions which she had answered already, and she resented the implication of his presence that there was more to be told than had been told. Trying to keep a firm hand on nerves that were beginning to torture her, she admitted that Macdonald was considerate and courteous and capable—and in spite of it she hated him, and unfortunately she had let him see it. (p. 122)
As Macdonald’s investigations proceed, it becomes clear that Ruth had fallen for the rather unsuitable Keith Brandon in the months before her death. Brandon – an explorer and serial womaniser at heart – had subsequently turned his attention to Ruth’s younger sister, Naomi, now conveniently out of the picture in the Hebrides. Did this spurning of affection for Brandon prompt Ruth to commit suicide, or was she killed deliberately – either by Brandon or by another player in the mix?
Suspicion also falls on the attendees at the literary party at Upwood on the night of the tragedy. Ruth’s publisher, Vernon Montague, stood to gain from her death, having been named as her literary executor in the freshly-altered will. Also in attendance at the event were Geoffrey Stanwood, a humble novelist whose work Ruth had been championing after a chance discovery, and Charlton Fellowes, a young essayist whom she had not previously met. Interestingly, Naomi was also staying at Upwood over the weekend in question, although not present at the literary gathering itself.
As this slow-burning mystery unfolds, further sinister events occur, including a fire, two poisonings and an ‘accident’ involving two of the potential suspects, giving Macdonald plenty to get his teeth into. As ever with Lorac’s Macdonald mysteries, we see plenty of dogged policework in the investigations; and while the Chief Inspector shows as much understanding and compassion towards the Surray family as possible, he never allows these considerations to distract from uncovering the truth.
Interestingly, there’s quite a strong focus on characterisation in this one. We learn more about Ruth as the mystery unfolds – a reticent, highly-strung woman who had hidden quite a lot of herself from the world, despite her career as a prolific writer. Richard, too, comes in for quite a lot of scrutiny, especially as his motives for the suppression of key information are explored. He seems to think that brilliant, intellectual women are more fragile and prone to living on their nerves than their male counterparts – a view that tips into sexism at times.
There are also some interesting asides about the ethics of the posthumous publication of a writer’s unfinished works, to the point where I began wonder if Lorac was conveying some of her own views on the subject through Ruth’s thoughts and actions.
All in all, then, a very solid, leisurely mystery with some interesting characters and motivations at its heart. The solution, when it comes, is quite an intriguing one, albeit a little obscure – not something I would have worked out for myself without Macdonald’s explanation, but technically possible nonetheless!
Post After Post-Mortem is published by the British Library; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.