In recent years, the British Library has been doing a sterling job with its reissues of various vintage mysteries by the English crime writer Edith Caroline Rivett. While many of these novels were written under Rivett’s main pen name E. C. R. Lorac, others were published in the guise of Carol Carnac – including the excellent Crossed Skis, a fabulous winter holiday read.
Crook O’ Lune (aka Shepherd’s Crook) is another splendid addition to the list, an absorbing slow-burn mystery with an excellent sense of place. The setting is the fictional farming community of High Gimmerdale, which Lorac based on the parish of Roeburndale in the Lancashire fells, an area she knew very well. It also features her regular detective, Chief Inspector Macdonald, who continues to impress with his sharp mind, likeable manner and thorough investigative skills.
With an eye on his future retirement plans, Macdonald is staying with friends in Lancashire’s Lune Valley while he searches for a small dairy farm to buy. During the trip, an investigation with links to the past arises, and Macdonald gets drawn in…
Gilbert Woolfall, a middle-aged businessman from Leeds, has recently inherited Aikengill, a remote farmhouse in the local area. While Gilbert has always been a town man, he finds himself increasingly tempted by the prospect of making Aikengill his home, especially given the beauty of the local area. Moreover, the property has been in the Woolfall family for centuries and was lovingly refurbished by the previous owner, Gilbert’s Uncle Thomas; so, the emotional pull of the property’s heritage is proving difficult for Gilbert to resist.
But with the other half of his mind he [Gilbert] was aware that something deep down inside him responded to the remoteness and serenity of the place, something tugged at him, told him he belonged here, as his forefathers had done and that if he sold that ancient house which Uncle Thomas had left him in his will, he’d know for the rest of his life he’d made a mistake, as well as lost an opportunity. (pp. 18–19)
Nevertheless, before finalising his decision, Gilbert is keen to work through his late uncle’s vast store of papers on the Woolfall family history. Who knows what he might discover as he continues to dig?
While Gilbert is mulling things over, Lorac introduces a few other interested parties – each with an eye on the new owner’s decision, one way or another. First up, there’s Betty Fell, a strapping lass from a family of local farmers. Betty hopes to marry her young man, Jock Shearling, a local farmhand, but the prospect of living with either set of parents is not particularly appealing. So, she asks Gilbert if she and Jock can stay in a wing of the house and look after the place in his absence. In effect, Betty would act as Aikengill’s housekeeper while Jock could look after the land.
Then there’s the Rector, the disagreeable Simon Tupper, who seems to think Gilbert’s uncle should have left the Church some money in his will. Gilbert knows of some suspicions regarding the Church’s misallocation of a previous stipend – a provision for a perpetual curate in the area, originally dating back to the Woolfalls’ ancestors in the 17th century. This ‘hocus-pocus’ about the grant appears to be the reason for the lack of any Church bequest in Uncle Thomas’s will. Finally, there’s Daniel Herdwick, owner of the neighbouring farm. He wishes to buy Aikengill as he already has grazing rights to the estate’s land.
Gilbert is minded to take up Betty Fell’s offer to take care of the place while he decides what to do long term. He knows it might take a year or two to make a final decision, and the house will need looking after in his absence – especially as the current housekeeper, Mrs Ramsden, is moving to Dent to take care of her cousin. However, before any plans can be finalised, a tragedy occurs. A fire breaks out in the Aikengill cellar, destroying the contents of the property’s study and killing Mrs Ramsden – possibly unintentionally, as the house was presumed to have been unoccupied on the night in question.
Naturally, Chief Inspector Macdonald gets involved in the case – firstly as a consultant to the local police and subsequently on a more formal basis. The ensuing investigations take Macdonald through the hills and dales of the fells, giving Lorac ample opportunities to showcase her skills in capturing the beauty of the local area. What makes this story particularly engaging is how beautifully Lorac portrays the farming community and the local landscape. She writes lovingly about the details of day-to-day rural life, the rhythms of working the land, and the blend of beauty and ruggedness in the terrain.
It was a glorious spring evening, the sun still gilding the crests of the high fells, though the valley was already in shadows. At first, the steep narrow road ran between hedgerows in which the first blackthorn was spreading a mist of white, and the willow catkins were blobs of gold, but after a couple of miles the hedgerows gave way to dry-stone walls, the arable land dropped behind, and the road rose even more steeply to the open fellside. (p. 16)
The narrative is punctuated by some lovely descriptions of the Lancashire landscape, and Lorac’s knowledge of the practicalities of sheep farming also comes through, giving the story a strong sense of authenticity. (The Aikengill mystery is further complicated by the apparent theft of some sheep from Herdwick’s flock – a series of incidents that may or may not be connected to the fire) The post-war atmosphere, complete with shortages and black-market trading, is also nicely evoked.
Another area where Lorac excels is the characterisation. In Macdonald, Lorac has created a character with a deep understanding of country folk, particularly their strong sense of community and suspicion of strangers. The number of key players/suspects is relatively small, and Lorac fleshes them out beautifully through a combination of dialogue, behaviours and descriptive passages. As this mystery is a slow burner, we get to know the characters really well, despite a few obligatory red herrings here and there.
Moreover, the solution is not overly complex or convoluted. Much of it rests on Uncle Thomas’s investigations into the Woolfall family history, some of which seem tantalisingly out of reach for the reader. (If you’re someone who likes to spot the clues and piece everything together yourself before the investigator reveals all, you might be a little frustrated with this one. I’m not sure there’s enough here to actually solve the puzzle in full without a little more info on Uncle Thomas’s papers.) Nevertheless, when the solution is finally laid out, it feels entirely plausible and in keeping with the novel’s tenor – so, no complaints on that front from me.
In summary then, this is a very absorbing mystery with a well-developed set of characters and a marvellous sense of place. Another winner from E. C. R. Lorac, one of the stars of the British Library Crime Classics series – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.
Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
Lovely Lancashire- would be nice to visit when we have the railway again!
Indeed, and Lorac captures the feel of the landscape and the farming community so effectively. You can tell she knows this area very well.
Thanks again for sharing my review, it’s much appreciated.
I read my first Lorac last year (also an Inspector Macdonald) and enjoyed it very much. Like for you in this one, her descriptions really stood out to me as did the characters. This is certainly going onto my list, though I have a couple of her titles waiting on my TBR already
She’s so reliable – always good with with atmosphere, sense of place and character, which tends to place her mysteries a cut above the norm. Plus, Chief Inspector Macdonald is a very likable detective with a thorough, methodical approach, so it’s generally a pleasure to spend time in his company.
This sounds lovely. For me the main mystery is why anyone would think that the incredibly hard work of running a dairy farm would be a suitable retirement plan! But maybe MacDonald wants a much more active retirement than the one I plan which mainly involves lots of reading :-)
Haha! My thoughts exactly! Who in their right mind would want to take on a working dairy farm (albeit a small one) as a retirement project. Surely he’d be better off writing detective stories (or just reading them) to pass the time. ;-)
Sounds a perfect read for the winter holiday.
It’s delightful! I do enjoy these mysteries every now and again, especially as wind-down reads when things are busy. As you say, an ideal holiday read.
Lovely review, Jacqui, and this is a Lorac I’ve not read yet, though I do have it in the pile somewhere. Sounds like a very beguiling setting before you even get on to the mystery, and I do agree that Lorac is so good on character. Definitely one to dig out sooner rather than later! :D
I actually think this is one of her most enjoyable mysteries, as long as you’re up for a slow burner. Macdonald is as likeable as ever – sympathetic when required, but always sharp enough to spot when something looks odd. I’ll be interested to see if you think Lorac gives the reader enough to solve the mystery before the reveal. That’s the only question mark I have about it. To be honest, it didn’t bother me as I’m never too fussed about trying to work these things out for myself, but others might feel differently. So, I’m curious to see what you think about the ‘fair play’ aspect of the book!
I’ve no issue with a slow burner at all, so I’ll look forward to it. And as I rather like being bamboozled and rarely really guess whodunnit I shan’t mind the fair play aspect I suspect!
Cool – I think you’ll enjoy it!
This sounds a lovely read and appealing to me as the Lune valley is not far away ( though pretty soggy right now). It sounds like the beauty has been captured along with a nice slow mystery. I have been enjoying mystery novels much more over the past year, especially in audiobook form. I’ll have to see if my library has anything by this writer.
Lovely review, as always.
How lovely to be living so close to this area. It’s not a part of the country I know very well, but it does sound beautiful – and suitably innocent-looking for this kind of mystery! Lorac is well worth checking out (one of the best authors in the BLCC stable, imo) so I hope your local library has her in stock. Fingers crossed!
Always look forward to another Lorac and this is one I’ve been patiently waiting on to reach these shores. She does write atmosphere beautifully and even better when she knows the territory well, as in ‘Crossed Skis’. Spending time in congenial company like Insp. Macdonald’s, and getting caught up in the story appeals more than getting too worried over whether it’s fairly clued. A good slow burn sounds perfect!
I’m so glad you like the sound of this one, Jule. It’s just the ticket for a rainy afternoon or a long night in front of the fire. As you say, it’s all the gentle pleasures the reader experiences along the way that make this such an enjoyable story, not the explanation of the crime itself. (Other readers may disagree, of course, especially if they like to have a stab at solving the puzzle before the whys and wherefores are revealed!)
Never read Lorac before—or even heard of her—but your review of Crook O’Lune makes me think I need to put her on my TBR list. Good writing, a sense of place, and vivid characters tick all the boxes as far as I’m concerned. I will be looking to see if Crook O’Lune is available through interlibrary loan.
I think she’s very good, especially compared to other writers who were working in the ‘Golden Age’ mystery genre at the time. Well worth checking out if you like this kind of ‘cosy crime’.
I’m really looking forward to this one, Bats in the Belfry first!
I think that’s one of the few Loracs I’ve yet to read!
This sounds like one my Dad might enjoy, a retired sheep farmer who’s only found time for reading in very late retirement. It’s rare to find fiction that incorporates rural farming life, but this does sound interesting. Love the cover too.
Oh, you’re right, Claire. He may well enjoy Lorac’s countryside mysteries as they’re atmospheric and gentle with a strong sense of place. We really get the feeling that Lorac understands the rituals and rhythms of rural life, the love the local people have for the land and traditional farming practices etc. They’ve very well-written too – definitely worth considering!
Catching up with blogs, as I have been a bit under par. This sounds like the kind of thing I should have been reading through. Lorac is such a good mystery writer and that strong sense of place particularly appeals.
Oh, I hope you’re feeling a bit better, Ali. You’ll like this one, I think. It’s very involving despite the leisurely pace. A most enjoyable read all round.
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