This is another post war title, by Lorac, from the British Library Crime Classics series. Like Fire in the Thatch (1946), we have a POW looking to recuperate in the countryside. This time it is Dr Raymond Ferens, who is the POW and he and his wife, Anne, start the book by moving to the village of Milham in the Moor, which is set in Exmoor, Devon. It is a very insular community, but it seems tranquil enough for their needs. Also in the area is a local children’s home, Gramarye, which is run by the warden, Sister Monica. From their very first meeting the Ferens do not like Monica, convinced she is ‘wicked.’ Anne goes as far as saying, ‘She’s a dominating type behind that smarmy manner, and she’s been sovereign in her small domain for a very long time. I can well believe she’s a snooper who kids herself it’s her duty to snoop.’ Their assessment of Sister Monica seems supported when a while later she is found dead one morning, in the Mill Race, at the exact place where a young woman drowned a year previously. Are the two cases interlinked? The local police are up against it, as the local villagers are determined to say nothing, so the case is soon passed to Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard. Half of his job is convincing the locals to reveal what they know, to speak justly for the dead, which was actually the US title the book was published under. Eventually he begins to reap the rewards and Monica’s ‘wonderful’ image is shattered, but with locals not above fabricating evidence for a quiet life, will he discover who the killer is?
This is a book which, in part, echoes sentiments voiced by Sherlock Holmes, as this story too acknowledge the evil to be found in innocent looking parts of the countryside:
‘Villages, as you may know, are not really more virtuous than towns. They only look more virtuous, and are more successful in coating the past with lime wash, as they do their cottages.’
I enjoyed how Lorac sets up her novel and how she presents the aristocracy after the war, in the way they have to adapt and change with the times to keep their living. This is especially evident in the character of Lady Ridding, the Ferens’ landlady, within whom, ‘the feudal system [is] wedded to modern business methods.’ The Ferens are also a good choice for opening the story, as they are a pair that the readers can quickly engage with. It is therefore a pity that after the exposition of the tale, they fade mostly into the background.
Whilst the Ferens’ are implausibly quick to loathe Monica, evidence for her misdeeds do start trickling in, though I think some pieces of information are kept back a little too long. I thought Lorac was good at showing how one person can come to dominate a place and how those around them become willing to speak only well of them. One line in particular struck me as reminiscent of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (1950) when one character tells Anne to cease talking about Monica: ‘Shall we change the subject until we get inside the house? Some of the estate men use this path, and if walls have ears, the same is true of trees and thickets.’ Similarly, in Lewis’ earlier novel we have the beavers saying that even the trees have ears. In both cases there is a sense of characters being fearful of saying what they want, in case they are overheard and get into trouble.
The puzzle fan may be a little disappointed in this mystery, as I don’t feel it is one which you can solve yourself, as Macdonald is prone to keeping his ideas to himself and some of his cluing is rather subtle.
However, I am looking forward to listening to Sarah Ward’s talk on Lorac at the Bodies from the Library conference, as I think I’ll be able to get a bigger picture of her work. (No pressure Sarah!)
Source: Review Copy (British Library)
Calendar of Crime: March (5) Other March Holiday (Lady Day)