This is my book group’s choice for November and in the British Library Crime Classic edition I am reading, the short story ‘The Live Wire’ (1939) is also included. This novel is one of several which the author set in Lunesdale in Lancashire, where she herself went to live. I have read some of the other books she set there, such as Crook O’ Lune (1953), but Fell Murder is Chief Inspector Macdonald’s first murder investigation in the area.
‘The Garths had farmed their fertile acres for generations, and fine land it was with the towering hills of the Lake Country on the far horizon. Here hot-tempered Robert Garth, still hale and hearty at eighty-two, ruled Garthmere Hall with a rod of iron. Until, that is, old Garth was found dead – ‘dead as mutton’ – in the tramped mud of the ancient outhouse. Glowering clouds gather over the dramatic dales and fells as seasoned investigator Chief Inspector Macdonald arrives in the north country. Awaiting him are the reticent Garths and their guarded neighbours of the Lune Valley; and a battle of wits to unearth their murderous secrets.’
When reading Fell Murder, my mind often thought back to Crook O’ Lune which I reviewed earlier this year. The reason for this was more than the simple fact they are set in the same area. The parallels go beyond that.
The first of these is the way Lorac deploys an initial character as a vehicle for introducing the plot setup and other key figures in the drama to follow. However, unlike Gilbert Woolfall in Crook O’ Lune, Jim Staple in Fell Murder, is not an outsider to the area. Moreover, the first person he talks to in the book is a man who was a local but who left after a big fight with his father and has not been back to the area for decades. The fact he has been away so long gives Jim a legitimate reason for sharing what has occurred in the local vicinity since he departed, which in turn provides the reader in a more natural fashion the important information they need to know to get to grips with the story. I felt Lorac executed this narrative device well. Gilbert, in the other novel, experiences this dynamic in reverse, as the incomer who has to find out who his new neighbours are. Family feud fuelled mysteries, which Martin Edwards describes as ‘return of the prodigal’ stories in the introduction to the British Library reprint, crop up quite a bit in classic crime fiction and Martin does a good job of providing further examples in his introduction.
Both Fell Murder and Crook O’ Lune share a similarly slow pace. In Crook O’ Lune there is a strong focus on describing the natural landscape and we find this here in Fell Murder too, although I would say there is a greater emphasis placed on farming such a landscape and how farming was changing because of WW2. The primary death in Fell Murder also occurs much later than in Crook O’ Lune, as a good chunk of the first 100 pages are spent looking at Robert Garth and his household. You could say Fell Murder plods, yet nevertheless I felt it could work very well as a soothing background audio book.
I have recently come across a comment which suggested that setting was less important to Golden Age Detective fiction, and in some ways that might be true (although a simple blank statement like that is always problematic on so varied a subgenre), in the Lunesdale mysteries of Lorac that is not the case. We see in both Crook O’ Lune and Fell Murder that the writer shapes their plots around the landscapes they are situated in and the more we find out about the murders and how they are committed, the more apparent this becomes. I won’t give any details to avoid spoilers.
Whilst one can give Lorac top marks for setting, I think the mystery plot is less substantial in her Lunesdale mysteries. I spotted the culprit early in the book and what is designed as a last-minute surprise was fairly expected. This will be especially the case for those who have read quite a few mysteries already. Chief Inspector Macdonald does deliver an investigation akin to one performed by Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French, which might make it more appealing to some readers. Nevertheless, the denouement felt rushed.