Today’s read is a testament to the value reprints have, as this Lorac title was prior to its reissue, an incredibly scarce title. Bank robberies would be required to pay for any second-hand copy if you could find one. This mystery is an early example of a murder taking place at a treasure hunt party, predating Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly (1956) by 19 years. The nature and clientele of each party differ considerably, as in Lorac’s case the treasure hunt is an indoor and highly intellectual one, set unusually on April Fool’s Day, and Lorac’s novel is also quick to expand the story beyond the initial murder location. Another example of a treasure hunt mystery is Nicholas Brady’s Ebenezer Investigates (1934). I think all three tales affirm the advice that if you go to a treasure hunt, expect to find a body!
‘Chief Inspector Macdonald has been invited to a treasure hunt party at the house of Graham Coombe, the celebrated publisher of Murder by Mesmerism. Despite a handful of misgivings, the inspector joins a guest list of novelists and thriller writers disguised on the night under literary pseudonyms. The fun comes to an abrupt end, however, when ‘Samuel Pepys’ is found dead in the telephone room in bizarre circumstances.’
I enjoyed the fact that Lorac’s treasure hunt party was an adult one, with a very confined number of participants, who are mostly writers, excepting Chief Inspector Macdonald. Furthermore, several of the writers taking part are also mystery/thriller writers, though I don’t think Lorac exploits this angle extensively in a metafictional manner.
Nevertheless, there are some interesting nods to real life detective fiction authors, which Lorac probably knew quite well from the Detection Club. For example, the first victim, Andrew Gardien is described as an ‘author of a dozen detective stories. The “Master Mechanic” the reviewers called him, owing to his ingenuity in inventing methods of killing based on simple mechanical contraptions…’ This put me in mind of John Rhode and Martin Edwards, who writes the introduction to the reprint, suggests the same parallel.
I also wondered if the economist Ashton Vale, in the book, was a nod to G. D. H. Cole, who was also an economist who wrote detective stories with his wife, Margaret. Peter Vernon, a journalist in the novel, says of Vale: ‘What a lark if Ashton Vale turned out to be the author of Ronile Rees’ books. you never know with these blighters. They just chuck off a thriller or two in their spare time.’
In addition, I thought a passage later in the book might have been a jokey reference to Lorac’s own penname: ‘Miss Rees is accepted by the critics as a man you know. They always review her as Mr R. Rees.’ Lorac was also assumed to be a man by reviewers and in Murder Must Appetize (1975), H. R. F. Keating writes about the surprise he had when he found out that the ‘trenchantly logical, pipe smoke-wreathed hero of my boyhood was Miss Edith Caroline Rivett.’
I liked the book’s gently comedic opening, which I felt humanised Chief Inspector Macdonald. We learn about how he was invited to the treasure hunt party. At a dinner he criticised a book and the publisher who printed it was also in attendance and it is this same publisher who then invites him to the party he is hosting. At this stage in the story the narrative voice weaves in Macdonald’s train of thought:
‘With Coombe’s invitation in his hand, he felt that he was hoist with his own petard. He was offered hospitality by a publisher who turned the other cheek to the smiter, and who at the same time challenged the critic to use his wits in practical combat against those whom he had derided […] If he went to the party he would probably end up looking a fool., as well as feeling one, for it was highly probable that the “thriller merchants” would deal with clues “literary and historical” far more swiftly than he could himself. If, on the other hand, he refused to go, he could imagine Graham Coombe chuckling over the pusillanimity of a critic who funked a battle of wits with those whom he had criticised.’
This definitely seems like an uncomfortable moment for Macdonald, yet I wondered if Lorac, his creator, had fun putting him in this situation. In such circumstances, as an author herself would she be on the side of the writers?
The treasure hunt party is one of the highlights of the novel. I enjoyed reading Macdonald’s first impressions of the guests and his early guesses at their real identities, as everyone at the party is using a pseudonym. In fact, trying to figure out who people really are is the second element of the treasure hunt, a part of the game which unfortunately does not happen, due to murder interrupting proceedings.
The lights going out due to a blown fuse, however, is the first interruption to the hunt. I seem to be reading a lot of books with this trope in at the moment, as Lorac’s tale is the third one in a row. Yet perhaps due to its prevalence in my recent reading I was struck with how Lorac’s use of this element is more creative, as it would be unwise to assume that the lights going out is part of the murderer’s plan. Lorac’s book probably also includes the world’s quickest electrician, in terms of their arrival and ability to sort out the problem!
Lorac is good at recreating the publisher/writing milieu with her characters and I particularly liked the conversation between Miss Coombe and her publisher brother, such as when she says to him: “I’ve always said you were very competent – at acquiring ideas […] When you get to heaven and are refused admission – or vice versa – your first comment will be ‘Now, can we use that?’” Furthermore, we also see of a lightness of tone in Chief Inspector Macdonald’s investigation. For example, in answer to the question of whether his case is a case he replies: “At present it resembles a coffin […] complete with one detective writer, dead, and the reputation of one detective, living.”
Macdonald’s investigation starts well with him diligently following up clues at the crime scene and then his efforts to track down the home of the victim. There is an amusing incident with a kitten and there is also the question of whether some of the suspects are being too helpful and are endeavouring to pull the wool over the Chief Inspector’s eyes. The deployment of the second victim is also effectively done, in terms of its timing in the plot and its contribution to the final solution. In addition, we get to see the case from the point of view of the suspects and I liked reading about Graham and Susan Coombe chatting about the sticky situation they are, as well as theorising about what might have happened. It is perhaps these elements which led Martin Edwards to opine that:
‘of all the Lorac books I have read, These Names Make Clues is the novel most closely in tune with the mood of traditional detective fiction of the kind we associate with ‘the Golden Age of Murder’ between the two world wars.’
However, I do not entirely agree with this assertion, as I think the final half of the book is much closer to a thriller than a traditional detective plot. Part of this is because Lorac pushes Macdonald into the background and instead the suspects and Peter Vernon are more centre stage. I don’t feel this was such a good idea on Lorac’s part as it means that a lot of crucial work that Macdonald does, occurs off the page and consequently his delivery of his solution brings up information that the reader was previously not informed about. I also feel the way the suspects obstruct the police is an overused trope in the narrative. Surprisingly, for me, this is a mystery where I would have preferred spending more time with the police detective and his investigation.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classic)