Photo by lucentius

Murders for August

Locked rooms and dark churchyards

Artillery Row Books
The Seat of the Scornful: A Devon Mystery, John Dickson Carr (British Library Crime Classics, £9.99)

Yet again, the British Library Crime Classics delivers successes, in this case three. John Dickson Carr’s The Seat of the Scornful: A Devon Mystery (1942; 2022, £9.99) is somewhat different to the conventional Carr with its complex locked room mystery or equivalent, but there is both a puzzle of location and timing as well as the presence of Carr’s private commentator on detectives, Gideon Fell.

Till Death Do Us Part, John Dickson Carr (British Library Crime Classics, £8.99)

The cast is partly legal, notably Mr Justice Ireton, a very contained judge and his wished-for son-in-law Fred Barlow, an urbane barrister. Ireton’s daughter Constance, however, has fallen for the somewhat louche and Italianate Tony Morell, he of the flashing white teeth. Female desire indeed is an important theme in the novel, with the immature Constance the foil for the deeper and older Jane Tennant, she of the “You know, this is positively indecent”. A femme fatale? There is rather a lot about being deep breathed and bouncing, but Carr was always on the suggestive side. The wartime writing is not to the fore. Instead, we have a pre-war ambience and a puzzle to cherish, with many interesting and surprising turns.

For another wartime Carr novel in the series, try Till Death Do Us Part (1944; 2021, £8.99), again with a puzzling woman, Lesley Grant. An idyllic opening rapidly becomes an apparent slaying of a fortune-teller at a local fête. Things not being what they seem, we find murder, a classic locked-room setting and Gideon Fell. This impressive book is a sprightly reminder that war did not dull Carr’s talents. Set in pre-war rural England, this is “a detective-yarn. Corpse found in a locked and bolted room. On one side of him a hypodermic needle. On the other side a box of drawing pins”.

Crook O’Lune: A Lancashire Mystery, E.C.R. Lorac (British Library Crime Classics, £9.99)

The very well-conceived puzzle is given greater strength by playing on psychological characteristics:

That story of his was in its own way a minor work of art. It was directed solely and simply at you, at every chink in your armour, every receptive part of your mental make-up. Each word was designed to get its own particular response from you. On to this young lady he grafted a psychological character in which you could believe, an irony that would strike you as right, a situation which your own imagination would compel you to accept.

And so also with the deft handling of the readers by Carr. I did not get it, and was very impressed by both the who and the how.

Just published, Crook O’Lune: A Lancashire Mystery (1953; 2022 ed., £9.99) is another E.C.R. Lorac title in this excellent series. Again, there is a fine sense of place, in this case Lunedale, fell and sheep grazing country, with a small cast of characters some as gnarled or as stony as the Pennine countryside. Displaying his ability to cite T.S. Eliot, Inspector Robert Macdonald (a would-be sheep farmer) returns in a satisfying puzzle, with both a who and a why-dunnit component. Post-war Britain is present in black marketeering, draft-dodging and anti-decontaminating measures, alongside such traditional rural pursuits as sheep-stealing and anti-clericalism, the latter justified by the brilliantly drawn Tupper, a stupid, lazy and superior cleric, who possibly stands in for most intellectuals. 

1979, Val McDermid (Sphere, £8.99)

There is a strong sense of values and continuity, not least in Gimmerdale church: “ … the same dignity and sombreness as the stone barns near at hand … it was cold, underrated, silent — but it was there, as it had been throughout the centuries: in a sense neglected, in a sense forbidding, it had the reticence and endurance of the folk who had built it. And to ignore it was to ignore something intrinsic to the people whose church it was.”

This is an England of roots and lineage, of relationship with landscape and animals, and of a sense of duty. The men walk for many miles. A powerful portrayal by an author who has been revived by this first-rate series.

Val McDermid’s 1979 (2021; Sphere, £8.99) is an ably-set mystery that eventually involves a murder in which the two possible culprits draw on the different strands of this well-constructed account of a young Glasgow reporter during the Winter of Discontent. Excellent on those troubled times, on newspapers in an age of hot metal print, on Glasgow, and on changing elements in British society. McDermid writes very well, establishing Allie Burns, her young reporter, as a character she can take forward in future stories. One to enjoy.

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