Source: Review Copy (British Library)
I have only tried this author twice and each time I have felt like I need to try Lorac’s work again soon. However her work is not the easiest or cheapest to track down, so I was very pleased when the British Library announced they were going to be reprinting two works by Lorac; today’s read and Fire in the Thatch (1946), (review coming soon).
The story begins with a funeral for a distant Australian cousin of Bruce Attleton’s, a failed writer who lives off his wife, Sybilla’s income as a successful actress. Relations are strained to say the least. There are a host of other guests at the wake afterwards, Bruce’s good friend Neil Rockingham, Bruce’s ward Elizabeth Leigh, Elizabeth’s suitor Robert Grenville and Thomas Burroughs, a wealthy stockbroker who is enthralled with Sybilla. As tensions gently bubble beneath the surface, Elizabeth brings up the topic of how to dispose of a corpse, a conversation which reveals an alarmingly macabre side to some unexpected characters. The event is capped off by a mysterious phone call by someone named Debrette, the name of which leaves Bruce foaming at the mouth with anger. Why is he so angry at Debrette? That is the question Neil and Robert try to solve. A simple enough task, yet one which brings much mayhem, violence and confusion. Both Debrette and Bruce disappear and it is not long before an unpleasant discovery is made in the sinister Belfry studio (nicknamed the morgue), within which Debrette was supposed to have resided. Thankfully Chief Inspector Macdonald has already become involved in the case. Confusion over identity is a theme which crops up in this story in an array of ways, making this a tricky case to solve. Yet at one point it seems like Macdonald has the case pretty much sewn up, but he remains unsure, fearing he is being led up the garden path by a very clever criminal. In particular the question which troubles him the most is why did Debrette not shave his beard?
As Christie would go on to find, a funeral makes for a great way to introduce a set of characters, as this is an event which reveals much about those attending. A funeral can bring out the awkwardness and tension beneath the surface and also show which characters are the most callous, the prize for this latter category probably being won by Bruce. Yet despite this, Lorac does not estrange the reader from him entirely. For instance, Bruce has vetoed Robert from marrying his ward, believing she should not be rushed into marriage. Normally such an oppressive act would be viewed as yet another negative mark on Bruce’s scorecard. But I was quite surprised to find, that despite his many other failings, Bruce might not have been so far off having qualms about Robert…
From a character archetype point of view, Robert ordinarily should be playing the role of the young lead male, who is the romantic interest for Elizabeth and is an amateur assistant to the police. However, I don’t think he really plays out like that. Robert for instance has his own oppressively patriarchal views, grumbling about the club Elizabeth stays at and thinking that all Elizabeth really needs to be fulfilled is a home to look after. He is also much older than Elizabeth, him being 30 whilst she is only 19 and tellingly he does not want to wait 2 years until she reaches her majority and can marry who she wants anyways, as he thinks that the longer they wait the more likely she is to change her mind. He is also not above thinking that if he can track down Debrette he might be able to blackmail Bruce into giving his permission. All in all Lorac delivers us a decidedly ambiguous and complicated male lead. Nor is he much of an amateur sleuth and in fact I would go as far to say that he is more of a parody of one than an actual one. Macdonald keeps him firmly in check once he enters the story and every time he disobeys Macdonald’s orders, his moments of discovery are invariably curtailed by significant personal injury to himself. It is not surprising that he ends the story in hospital. One of the reasons I have talked about Robert’s character at length is that he is a prime example of how good and how nuanced Lorac’s characterisation work is. There is an array of striking characters in this book and this is not depreciated in characters we don’t see very much of. Only a small amount of the narrative features Sybilla, yet every appearance, however short, leaves a strong impression upon the reader and even at the of the story, Lorac continues to provide little chinks of surprise. In addition Macdonald is an entertaining sleuth to follow around. He is a very ordinary person, no big eccentric streaks, yet he is not dull either (a tricky balance to manage). He is full of life, personality and gentle humour.
The atmosphere is also well-crafted, with pockets of Gothicism disappearing and reappearing in the bouts of fog. Yet it is not overdone or made to feel unrealistic. In terms of the puzzle there is a lot for the reader to ponder over and in the early stages of the investigation a number of theories are set out, airing a number of possibilities as to what is actually going on. Since Robert makes for a poor amateur sleuth this is a thorough police investigation, but Lorac’s writing style prevents the story from becoming mundane. The disappearances involved in this case are used in a more unusual way in this book, meaning the reader cannot make seemingly obvious deductions about them straight away. The killer is certainly an unexpected one, though I wonder perhaps if they are a bit too sneaky. This is a solution which requires a criminal confession to corroborate it significantly, which in my opinion always makes the solution feel a little lacking. However, this does not mean the solution comes completely out of thin air, as Lorac leaves a number of clues within the text to point at the real culprit. The delightful twist of irony at the end of the story is also enjoyable – I feel Francis Iles would have approved.
N. B. Silliest term of endearment in the book: Bambina (one to remember for anyone doing a Valentine’s Day card this year)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Animal in the Title