Source: Review Copy (Ramble House)
E. C. R. Lorac is one of Edith Caroline Rivett’s pseudonyms, who also wrote as Carol Carnac, and her serial sleuth using the first penname was Scottish Chief Inspector Macdonald. Something which particularly struck me about this novel is Lorac’s engagement with contemporary issues and debates such as Anti-Semitism in the UK and Germany and also how external issues such as politics, race and class can have the potential to influence and affect a police investigation. Moreover, I think Lorac is good at weaving these themes into the story, without derailing the plot or turning the novel into a soapbox for her own opinions.
Black Beadle (1939) begins with events prior to the murder which takes place and because I didn’t read the blurb it was interesting to wait and see who gets bumped off. The action starts at a house warming party with many of the guests coming from a political career background and end up taking shop. In particular there is Sir John Soane and a friend who discuss whether either Gilbert Mantland or Barry Revian should be the given job of leading a board for industrial disputes. Even at this early point the text begins to consider the state of UK politics and also foreshadows to an extent the use of poison gas in WW2:
‘Our civilisation’s poisoning itself by its own completeness, too much heat, too much food, too much refrigeration, too much speed – it’ll all go back into savagery with the aid of poison gas if we’re not careful.’
There is also a suggestion that it is fear which is causing a destabilising effect on government decisions. Mark Garlandt who is overhearing this conversation can well believe, who as a Jewish financier is distraught in the extreme at what is happening in Germany but also at what might happen in the UK, with the possible rise of Fascism:
‘Hidden from all who knew him, seething in the very depths of his nature, that hatred was beginning to colour and warp the man’s judgement.’
Mark’s passion to prevent fascism and anti-Semitism in the UK leads to him trying to thwart the career of Revian, a man who he perceives is more likely to support these elements. We are also introduced at this point to a blackmailer called Suttler, who is watching the party outside and who pricks Mark’s interest.
Events then jump to the day of the murder. Our victim is the manager of Harringstone Building Society and they have caught one of the clerks fiddling the petty cash box and are using this to exhort blackmail money. Yet on their way home they are run over and by their criminal proclivities you might have guessed that the victim is Suttler. What ties this death to the characters introduced at the party revolves around the fact that it was Revian’s car which was used (though he reported it stolen) and inside Suttler’s pockets and his work safe there is also information about Revian. Was Suttler blackmailing Revian over a past indiscretion, or was this information planted in a bid to discredit him? Alongside this part of the case there is also Jones, the clerk who embezzled the society’s money and who is caught in the compromising position of having breaking into the building society late at night. Is he the killer instead? Or is he just a convenient scapegoat? To solve all these threads, Chief Inspector Macdonald is brought in to investigate.
In keeping with detective fiction of the time the suspects frequently reveal less than they know, such as Mark who says:
‘If it comes to a choice of the hangman or telling the facts as I know them, I shall prefer the hangman.’
The story also looks at the strain the case is causing the numerous suspects, many of whom have secrets not related to the hit and run, to hide and intermixed with Macdonald’s investigation there are also episodes where these characters are seen collaborating to protect one another and keep information hidden from Macdonald’s steely gaze. The major difficulty of this case is finding one definite guilty person and removing the cloud of suspicion and rumour, which is hanging over the other suspect’s heads. In addition to this, the case has a potentially explosive quality to it in that both class and race prejudice are liable to occur due to the various suspects involved and Macdonald’s superiors are keen for him to arrest Jones to avoid embarrassment to the establishment. Macdonald though, does not care about class nor position and knows in his guts that Jones is innocent, but how will he prove it? However, this police investigation is not just a one man show (though Macdonald is the primary detecting character) and it is also interesting to see the other police characters take on different strands of the investigation. The story has a dramatic finale before revealing the killer and tantalising delays giving the killer’s name, but in a good way.
As I mentioned at the start of my review, anti-Semitism is a key issue explored in the novel, highlighting various opinions and attitudes with remarks being localised to just Mark and others targeting Jews more globally. For example, Revian who is sore about the newspaper attacks he has been receiving and believing them to directed by Mark adapts a line from Kipling’s If poem to: ‘Twisted by Jews to make a trap for fools.’ In addition, Charles Raymond, a civil servant character is an interesting character in the way his anti-Semitism is expressed, almost in a backhanded compliment fashion:
‘I admire the Jews. I give them full credit for their intelligence and tenacity, for their charity to their own poor, for the way they uphold their religious observances, but I don’t grant that their ethic is similar to ours. They’ve suffered… suffered hell – and they feel it as a race. An eye for an eye… It was a Jew who said that it was expedient that one man should die for the people. Expedience is in their bones. I don’t believe that a man like Garlandt would have a single scruple in carrying out his purpose, not for his own good, but for the benefit of his race.’
It tries to on the surface emphasise positives and even suggest sympathy, but underneath it all the main message seems to present a warped version of Jewish morals and a strong sense of difference; a “them” and “us” kind of attitude. Some characters though are positive about Jewish people such as Gilbert who says ‘I know Jews in plenty and I honour them,’ although in times of stress even he falls back on to negative attitudes such as ‘Politics are a pretty dirty game. It’s not only the Jews and the Communists who hit below the belt.’ Moreover, even Macdonald expresses a rather unusual opinion on the ‘Jewish problem,’ as one character calls it, suggesting that Jewish people ‘have brought much of the present trouble upon their own heads by being too clever.’ Not quite sure where Macdonald was going with that one, but overall, I think that the negative attitudes are more prominent in the text as opposed to the positive ones. However I think Lorac avoids depicting Mark, the only Jewish character in the story, in a stereotypically cardboard fashion and I don’t think he is victimised. It would be interesting to find out what Lorac attitudes were towards this issue, so if anyone reading this knows, let us know in the comments section below.
There are some remarks which imply a sense of national identity, which today would seem narrow-minded and jingoistic, such as:
‘English law is famous throughout the world for its impartiality. In the east, where bribery and corruption are inherent in the minds of litigants, it is recognised that an English judge cannot be corrupted…’
However, these comments are very rare and don’t greatly impact on the readers’ experience of the story.
I really enjoyed this story and I will be definitely trying Lorac’s work again. I can’t decide how easy the case is to solve, as although I didn’t solve it, that might be because I wasn’t paying as much attention to certain parts of the text as I should have been. Some information is withheld but anything other than a subtle implication of this information would have made the case too easy to solve. I thought Macdonald was a good character and I liked how at the end of the novel he puts all the suspects, even the guilty, on a level playing field and finds common ground between them. In a society which was at the time potentially quite divisive, I thought this was a nice touch and well done. The central mystery was interesting as there were lots of possible suspects and avenues of inquiry to explore. The narrative style was engaging and although the reader receives some information before Macdonald, his finding out of it is not made repetitious, like it so often is in P. D. James’ novels. I thought the choice of victim, being a blackmailer was a good one as it meant there were potentially lots of suspects, who might have been their victims and are desperate enough to kill and there is also the interest of digging into the blackmailer’s past and discovering their own secrets.