Death of an Author (1935) by E. C. R. Lorac

To kick off another year of classic crime reprinting the British Library began 2023 with a new edition of the rare Lorac mystery, Death of an Author. Unusually for Lorac it is a mystery which does not feature her series sleuth Inspector Macdonald.

British Library Crime Classic cover for E. C. R. Lorac's Death of an Author. It shows a rural scence with a river and trees etc.


‘Vivian Lestrange – celebrated author of the popular mystery novel The Charterhouse Case and total recluse – has apparently dropped off the face of the Earth. Reported missing by his secretary Eleanor, whom Inspector Bond suspects to be the author herself, it appears that crime and murder is afoot when Lestrange’s housekeeper is also found to have disappeared. Bond and Warner of Scotland Yard set to work to investigate a murder with no body and a potentially fictional victim, as E C R Lorac spins a twisting tale full of wry humour and red herrings, poking some fun at her contemporary reviewers who long suspected the Lorac pseudonym to belong to a man (since a woman could apparently not have written mysteries the way that she did).’

Overall Thoughts

The opening setup sees publisher, Andrew Marriott, organising a dinner party so that author, Michael Ashe, can meet another successful author Marriott also publishes called Vivian Lestrange, a crime novelist. Ashe is surprised when a woman arrives at the party saying she is Lestrange, as he had assumed that the writer was a man. Yet the woman shows her mettle and gives Ashe both barrels, demanding equality with male writers and respect. Suffice to say she comes out on top in their conversation.

When I saw this narrative opening, I wondered if this more modern viewpoint on gender equality, meant that the story would act as an oppositional or contrasting text to Lorac’s later mystery, Post After Post-Mortem (1936). In that Inspector Macdonald mystery its characters emphasise how intellectualism is harmful for women and how a woman needs to marry or have a baby to recover from taking a degree!

However, despite Death of an Author’s early passages which depict a woman defending the quality of writing by female authors, the subsequent story undermines this defence on several occasions and overall I think a more ambiguous impression of women and their capabilities is presented. I will go into this ambiguity in more detail shortly. However, for now I really do wonder what was Lorac’s own viewpoint on gender equality and stereotypes? In the wake of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935), a key feminist detective fiction text, we have two novels by Lorac which put female intellectuality and female roles within society at their centre. Surely this is not a coincidence. Yet these stories have something of a conservative bias in that it is male voices which lead and dominate them, and I further wonder whether it could be said that Lorac’s work overall is more male character dominated. I don’t feel I have read enough of her work to make any firm assertions either way, (so any E. C. R. Lorac experts please chip in!). Nevertheless, when the theme of women and their role in society play a big part in the plot then it seems like the megaphone is very much given over to male characters rather than female ones. Death of an Author is better in this regard though, (in comparison to Post After Post-Mortem) in that the woman at the start gets some speaking time, even if it is very small compared to the likes of Marriott or the two police detectives in charge of the case.

During his first encounter with her Marriott thinks:

‘[…] that the voice and the face were well matched, both admirable, but queerly lacking in feeling – as dispassionate as the mind of a mathematician. When he expressed enthusiasm over the ideas she was sketching out for his benefit, Vivian Lestrange smiled at him very pleasantly, but yet conveyed the impression that it was her own judgement that mattered, nothing else.’

Competency and talent, encased within a woman seem to be interpreted here as arrogance and aloofness or detachment, an interpretation which I have encountered in fiction before. Following on from this meeting, Marriott continues by exclaiming:

“Upon my soul, the coolest creature I ever met in my life! […] Good brains, good looks, good breeding, and yet as remote as a stone carving. One couldn’t get to grips with her, every time I put in a friendly word, she just smiled through me!”

The phrase ‘one couldn’t get to grips with her’ is a telling one, as Marriott is not the only one in this book who can be critical towards her because she does not fit the pre-made moulds the male characters have for women.

Nevertheless, when Marriotts dinner party invitation to Vivian Lestrange is accepted, this action is perceived as a sign of feminine weakness, (the publisher assuming she has taken a shine to Ashe who is used to being adored by women). It felt like she couldn’t win as if she is professional and competent, she is an unfeeling automaton and if she responds to social interaction positively, it is regarded as her being led by her feelings. This is a dichotomy which crops up at points during the story.


During the dinner party, the woman who introduces herself as Vivian Lestrange proclaims this statement:

“The woman of today is beginning to see through the fraud; in short, we are realising ourselves, developing our dual heritage from father and mother alike, and adumbrating the time when artistic creativeness, – genius even – may be expected from women and men alike. We are still handicapped by the habit of thought of centuries, still too prone to acknowledge the unique splendour of the gifted male, – but your ‘weaker vessel’ theory, – I deride it! I challenge it! In short, I deny it utterly and without reserved!”

You could say this is a speech Dorothy L. Sayers would have been proud of and in isolation it could remain that way. However, these pronouncements of gender equality need to be assessed within the context of the whole story. Following the dinner party, this woman we knew as Vivian Lestrange goes to a police station and identifies herself as Eleanor Clarke, secretary to the male author Vivian Lestrange. She explains that she adopted his identity at the party as he eschewed publicity of any kind. Consequently, Eleanor, as we can now call her, doesn’t live up to the ideals in her polemic speech. You could argue that she instead uses them as part of her camouflage at the dinner party.

More importantly though these notions on female capabilities do not permeate the rest of the narrative. Eleanor has a very minimal presence in the plot after the first chapter or two. She only really crops up again at the denouement (and even then she is a passive rather than active agent). Primarily, her role in the novel is to trigger into action a male filled and male driven murder mystery, during which she is often treated as an adversary or combatant by the police, who are highly sceptical of her story. The fact Eleanor’s role becomes so diminished makes me wonder if this is a comment on gender equality in and of itself. Although as smart as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Harriet Vane, she lacks the agency this earlier character possesses.

Double standards also creep into the characters’ thinking as at one point the police propound that if Vivian Lestrange is Eleanor after all then she must be abnormal and craving notoriety. But if it transpires that Lestrange is a man and is behind all the mysterious goings on, as is the case ultimately, then one of the policemen reasons that the mysteries Lestrange writes are evidence of his sanity. This is an idea we can certainly question given Lestrange’s fixation on getting revenge upon his brother. It has to be said that in the first third of the novel this gender element did dampen the reading experience for me. Fortunately, this fades more into the background as the book progresses. Is there a connection between this fading and Eleanor’s reduced presence in the plot I wonder? (Yes, I do a lot of wondering when I am reading!)

However, just when we think we have some handle on what the characters do and don’t think and what ideas are being endorsed or refuted, we have comments from male characters which maybe address a little the imbalanced discussion on gender. Firstly, we have Chief Inspector Warner of Scotland Yard explaining to Inspector Bond, why Eleanor is getting on his ‘nerves’:

“You have a tidy mind, and you like to card-index the characters you meet. You know the womanly woman, the obvious bad lot, the shop-lifting type, and the hardened harridan, always drunk of an evening. Miss Clarke is a bit of a blue-stocking, the modern intellectual who meets a man on equal terms and admits not his superiority – nor yet panders to it. You’re irritated because you can’t place her in your experience that’s all…”

This chimes in with Marriott’s inability to ‘get to grips with her’. This description whilst limiting in the “types” of women it suggests exist, at least when it talks about Eleanor’s character, does not use judgemental language about her.

Perhaps more surprising, is Marriott’s exhortation of female writers later in the book, which he directs at Warner:

“There isn’t a compartment of a man’s mind that the modern woman hasn’t explored. She knows the violence of his speech and passions, she writes of both. I could show you the manuscripts written by girls of today that would make your hair rise on your scalp! The cunningest murder stories are planned by women’s brains. If Miss Dorothy Sayers had chosen to write under the name of Jack Johnson, would you have guessed the writer was a woman? Consider another category. – Take Tennyson Jesse. Have you read Tom Fool? Would you have said that was a woman’s writing? If you’d read Red Wagon would you have said, ‘ah, yes – a woman’? if the name on the title page hadn’t told you who’d written it? I’ll tell you what, – I’ll lend you three new books, and if at the end of the week you can tell me the sex of the writers correctly, I’ll send ten pounds to any charity you like to name. There’s no criterion nowadays; women have claimed equality with men, and apart from the very front rank of genius they make good their claim.”

Sayers is directly mentioned, which again makes me wonder how much Sayers’ work influenced Lorac in writing this book. It is interesting that the other female author referenced is F. Tennyson Jesse, who wrote in the Notable British Trials series. Tom Fool was a book she wrote in 1926. I have not been able to find out if she or another author wrote Red Wagon, as nothing came up in Google. It is hard to say if the inclusion of these two forthright and independent females is Lorac’s way of showing support. Marriott’s discussion of them lacks sufficient opinion to tell. Marriott’s speech did feel like a bit of a turn around for this character, as prior to this point the quality of female writers is not something he extols.

Moving on to the plot and its narrative devices, I will say I was surprised by Eleanor’s revelation that she was not really Vivian Lestrange. It was not something that I expected, and I would say that is a good thing, although it perhaps puts her in a more relegated role. Nevertheless, it does set up an interesting hook of how the police can verify her story which involves her employer, who no one else has seen bar the cook, who has also gone missing and who gave a false home address. There are no fingerprints at the residence, and I guess it is not too surprising that the police wonder if it is a hoax and the number of possibilities of what could have been going on meant that the narrative was less predictable. I did wonder myself if there was a conspiracy to frame or ensnare Eleanor in some way, like in mysteries such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist’ (1903) or Anthony Gilbert’s The Woman in Red (1941). In addition, this narrative hook unveiled by Eleanor turns things upside down in one sense, but arguably it also provides relief for some male characters who are happy that their assumption that Vivian Lestrange was a man is correct after all.

Returning to the Sherlock Holmes canon, I think another similarity I spotted in Lorac’s plot is that her mystery entails a back story which pertains to past crimes and injustices which characters want to right in the present. Interestingly the two men involved in the previous embezzlement crime both reinvent themselves, although for different motives; one is disguising themselves to avoid their comeuppance, whilst the other creates a new identity from which he can pursue his brother who he believes has wronged him. All these elements put me in mind of A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Valley of Fear (1915).


So as the length of my post indicates, gender is a significant theme in the novel, yet another theme which appears in the story from time to time, is how crime fiction is viewed, compared to literary fiction. I think this theme is one Lorac had more fun with. For example, Michael Ashe, in the opening pages tells his publisher that he fears he is going stale with his writing and that he might write a crime novel. Marriott is far from pleased with this responding thus:

“If you’re afraid of getting stale, – and I for one, don’t see any signs of it – go for a voyage. Get a passage to Australia or Tristan da Cunha or Tierra, – in a wind-jammer for preference, but don’t utter these wild threats. Crime stories are a legitimate branch of fiction, but they’re mere ephemerals, – selling like hot cakes today, and gone tomorrow.”

Martin Edwards, in his introduction to the British Library reprint of this book, talks interestingly about how crime writers of the time could regard their work in this way. His examples include Agatha Christie and Nicholas Blake. I think, on the whole, Lorac gently pokes fun at the idea that detective fiction is a second rate form of literature and these moments were enjoyable to read.

Looking at the book overall I felt the opening was the most dynamic part. Nevertheless, Chief Inspector Warner and Inspector Bond provide a solid police investigation and I found it interesting to watch how they put the case together, like a jigsaw, trying pieces to see if they fit in the gaps and whether these pieces needed rotating or discarding. I would say, in comparison to the setting-driven mysteries Lorac located in Lancashire, this story is more plot focused. Whilst the solution is a good one, I think Lorac set her detectives such a hard case to solve that a deux ex machina is required to provide the evidence needed to wrap up the case, which affected my final rating.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review copy (British Library Crime Classic)


    • That’s interesting. Yet perhaps stereotypical attitudes towards women judge women more harshly than men if they are perceived as highly competent rather than warm. It puts me in mind what Birgitta Berglund wrote on this that if a female detective, ‘does not retain her feminine attributes, she is accused of being unwomanly, and if she does, she is accused of being unprofessional’ (Berglund, 2000: 144).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, that would be my prediction too, and I expect that this has been empirically documented.

        In the matrix with examples, the only gendered term is ‘housewives’ and it shows in the high warmth / low competence matrix. This suggests that warmth is more strongly associated with women—or at least housewives, more specifically—than competence is, and not adhering to stereotype generates discomfort (‘dissonance’) and negative judgment.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. We’ve been reading this at the same time! I am pretty much in agreement with you and would give it the same rating. I thought it was a great set-up and was a bit underwhelmed by the pay off.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I think the ending needed to pack the punch that the beginning did. It’s nice when I manage to review a book when lots of others are reading it too, as it means we all get to share our opinions whilst we remember them!


  2. I really enjoyed this – I think Lorac must have had a lot of fun given that it seems most people assumed she was a man. It was just let down a bit by the end with the rather pointless chase sequence.

    Liked by 1 person

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