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Friday, 26 July 2019

‘Fell Murder’ by E.C.R. Lorac

Published by British Library Crime Classics,
10 July 2019.
ISBN: 978 0 7123 5204 8 (PB)

The Garth family have lived in the family home, Garthmere Hall in the Lune Valley in northern Lancashire, for centuries. The Hall, although mediaeval in origin, is largely early Jacobean in style. But now World War II is raging, and the state of the Hall reflects the changes in the fortunes of the Garth family which lives entirely in the later, and slightly more comfortable, Queen Anne addition, leaving the main part of the building to slowly decay. However, the family have adapted to the change of fortune and now farm their land themselves. Although there are few Garths left to do the actual work, only old Robert Garth, his daughter Marion and his second son, Charles, children of his first marriage, Malcolm, Robert’s son by his second marriage, and a distant relation, Elizabeth Meldon. But, truthfully, only Robert, Marion, and Elizabeth are of much use. Charles, who has recently escaped from Malaya, resents being expected to work on the land, and Malcolm is frail and cannot do much. Although there is another son, Richard, years ago he had a bitter quarrel with his father when he married the daughter of a local farmer and has not been seen for many years although he has in fact, unknown to his family and following his wife’s death, returned to the fells but only for a brief visit before another spell on an Atlantic convoy.

Robert Garth is not an easy man to work for or indeed to live with. He is mean, stubborn, tyrannical and set in his ways, refusing to adopt Marion’s plans to modernise the farm, scornful of both Charles and Malcolm, just tolerant of Elizabeth’s presence. Richard cannot forgive his father for his attitude to his marriage and has no intention of being reconciled to him or even seeing him.

And then Robert is found dead from a shotgun blast in an outbuilding. At first suspicion falls on a local youth, a mental defective called Jock on whom Robert’s temper had fallen many times as it had fallen on many others. But many people feel that such an act is totally out of character. The local police force cannot deal with the situation what with manpower shortages because of the War so Scotland Yard is called in and duly arrives in the personage of this writer’s series detective, Chief Inspector Macdonald.

What first tempted me to buy this British Library Classic Crime title was the beautiful cover depicting the austerely beautiful fell landscape. And when I read it, although I found it the actual writing rather ponderous, I appreciated very much the author’s own love of that landscape which is a strong feature of this book and permeates the story throughout from the first page when local farmer John Staple gazes across the fells to the sea and the distant Lakeland hills to the very end with the stark blue line of the fells outlined against the sky flushing to dawn and the white and  luminous mists flushing to dawn – a description so vivid that the reader can actually see it.  I was also very impressed by her description of farming. Unlike the characters in classic Golden Age crime stories who live lives of leisure, the Garths and their fell-farming neighbours are farmers through and through, quite prepared to get themselves and their clothes dirty by mucking out shippons and so forth. Recommended.
Reviewer: Radmila May

E.C.R. Lorac was a pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958) who was a prolific writer of crime fiction from the 1930s to the 1950s, and a member of the prestigious Detection Club. She lived her last years with her elder sister, Gladys Rivett (1891-1966), in Lonsdale, Lancashire. Edith Rivett died at the Caton Green Nursing Home, Caton-with-Littledale, near Lancaster. Her books have been almost entirely neglected since her death but deserve rediscovery as fine examples of classic British crime fiction in its golden age.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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