Some of you may be scratching your heads looking at the publication date for today’s read, given that Lorac died in 1958. However, for the first time the British Library Crime Classic series has released not a reprint, but the first publication of a classic crime novel. This is one of those rare occasions of a lost manuscript being found. Martin Edwards, who writes the introduction, comments on the journey made before reaching this point, and how it is likely this story was written not long before the author’s death.
‘It happened on a dark and misty night; the night of the ball at The Prince’s Hall, Fordings. Abuzz with rumours surrounding the disappearance of Rosemary Reeve on the eve of last year’s ball, the date proves ill-fated again when two homebound partygoers, Nick and Dilys, come to a swerving halt before a corpse on the road.
Arriving at the scene to the news that Nick has been attacked after telephoning for the police, Inspector Turner suspects there may be more to the case than deadly accident, it’s not long before Waring of the local C. I. D. is drawn into the investigation, faced with the task of unravelling an increasingly tangled knot of misleading alibis and deep-rooted local grievances.’
Considering how late this work was produced in her career, very much at the tail end, you might imagine Lorac would have stuck with her usual characters and setting. Yet that is not the case here, with Martin remarking that the book ‘seems to have been making an attempt to break fresh ground.’ None of her series detectives feature and there is a geographical shift to the south coast of England, as normally Lorac preferred setting many of her mysteries in Devon. The idea she was trying something new is also supported by the fact that on the manuscript the author’s name is given as Mary Le Bourne, which Martin proposes is ‘a pun on “Marylebone”.’
The story comes at events from a variety of perspectives, which I enjoyed, along with Lorac’s bathetic turns of phrase. To begin with I would say the “suspect” characters dominate the narrative, but by the mid-way point the police investigation becomes centre stage, in particular the activities of Inspector Waring, who seems to be better at dealing with people than Inspector Turner. However, information concerning the case is also revealed through other local characters, who invariably do not tell the police. You can’t help feeling some sympathy for the police figures such as Turner, given how reluctant people are to cooperate with him. Inspector Waring seems to cope more successfully with evasive suspects and has a good natured but firm response to it.
There is a bit of a Cinderella-type element to the first few chapters, with Dilys having sneaked out to the hunt ball, without her father knowing. In suitable fairy tale fashion she has to get home before her housekeeper, not quite before midnight, but soon afterwards. Dilys has many admirers, but their devotion can be a bit grating at times and she herself is something of a wet drip. A well-timed fall into a cow pat wouldn’t have gone a miss…
That aside, the crime set up generates a number of investigative avenues to explore and of course with that come plenty of red herrings. This is a narrative which, if you are not careful, will lead you down the garden path by allowing, perhaps even encouraging you, to make assumptions about characters which aren’t correct. Due to the reticent nature of everyone and the tendency of some to go out of their way to spare Dilys any inconvenience, I felt the story became a little sluggish in the middle. But it certainly has a dramatic finish! I could imagine this book making quite a nice one-off TV drama. I had tumbled to the solution before the end, certain pieces of evidence stuck out, as did some of the narrative shifts, but it is still a well-put together mystery. It is a very commendable book upon which to end a career.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)
See also: The Puzzle has also reviewed this title here.