by Carol Westron
Lorac died in 1958 at the age of sixty-four. She had never married and left her estate to her sister, Gladys, with whom she had lived for the last few years of her life.
Lorac’s books were published in Britain and several were also published in the U.S. They were very popular with the public and received excellent reviews. Dorothy L. Sayers was particularly fond of church music and wrote an enthusiastic review of Lorac’s 1935 book The Organ Speaks, possibly seeing in it similarities to her own novel The Nine Tailors, which had been published a year before, in 1934. ‘The personality of the music pavilion does... permeate the book, and this gives a continuity and aesthetic value to the work... Mr Lorac knows his musical ‘stuff’ inside and out and uses that technical knowledge very skilfully to produce affects of mystery and beauty.’
The composer of cryptic crosswords and reviewer for The Observer, Edward Powys Mathers, who wrote under the pseudonym Torquemada, concluded his review of A Pall for a Painter (1936) by observing that, ‘it is safe to bet that this author will soon find himself an accepted member of that very small band which writes first-rate detective stories that are also literature.’
Sixty years after her death, Lorac’s work is out of print, apart from the two novels that have been recently
republished by the British Library, Fire in the Thatch (1946) and Bats in the Belfry (1937) and a third that will be republished in November 2018, Murder by Matchlight (1945.) Second-hand volumes of her work are eagerly sought after by collectors but, until the British Library republications, most of the general public had never heard of Lorac.
So why would such a prolific and popular author have fallen into obscurity? Part of the reason must surely lie in her desire for personal privacy. Although a few other women crime writers of that time used a male pseudonym, as a practise it was becoming less popular, and writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers were increasingly aware of the need for publicity to promote their books. It is not clear whether Sayers knew of Lorac’s gender when she wrote the review in which she referred to ‘Mr Lorac’, although she would have discovered the truth two years later when Lorac joined the Detection Club. It is possible that Sayers was aware of it and respected a fellow author’s desire for privacy. Certainly Lorac’s readers were unaware of her identity. H.R.F. Keating described the shock he felt when he discovered that ‘this trenchantly logical, pipe smoke-wreathed hero of my boyhood was Miss Edith Caroline Rivett.’ (Murder Must Appetize, 1975).
However, in my opinion, the main factor that has caused Lorac’s books to have been forgotten was Macdonald’s basic dullness. He is a very worthy, clever officer who successfully solves his cases and often shows intuition as well as intelligence, but he lacks the power to engage the imagination and interest that other, more lively and eccentric Golden Age Detectives possess. Indeed, Macdonald’s air of professional detachment is even greater than that of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French. Certainly, his private life and interests never intrude into the investigation. When it comes to the series protagonists of Police Procedurals, there are many senior police officers, such as Bellairs’ Littlejohn and Punshon’s Bobby Owen, who are warmer and more fully rounded characters than Lorac’s Macdonald.
Nevertheless, Macdonald is a clever and honourable detective and Lorac’s books are well worth reading. Her prose is elegant, her settings are exquisitely portrayed, and her plots are ingenious enough to keep the reader turning the pages.
Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.
The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.