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Thursday 29 August 2019

‘Murder in the Mill-Race’ by E.C.R. Lorac

Published by The British Library,
6 August 2019.
ISBN 978-0-7123-5268-0 (PB)

The story is set a few years after the end of the Second World War and starts when Dr Raymond Ferens and his wife, Anne, move to the remote Devonshire village of Milham in the Moor. Raymond survived captivity by the Japanese in the war, but the experience effected his health and he has been advised to buy a country practice, away from the dirt and demands of being a doctor in an industrial city. Milham in the Moor seems perfect for their needs, especially when they contrive to rent the ground floor of the beautiful Dower House from Lady Riding, the avaricious lady of the manor.

Anne is a warm-hearted and friendly young woman and, at first, she finds the village and its wonderful setting delightful, but soon she discovers a darker and more malicious side to the community. At the heart of this malice is Miss Monica Torrington, usually known as Sister Monica, who for thirty years has run the children’s home, Gramarye. Sister Monica is an exceptionally tall woman who insists on wearing ‘the long dark cloak and veil which hospital nurses had worn as uniform in the early nineteen hundreds.’ At their first meeting, despite her soft voice and gracious manner, Anne notes that she smiles with her lips but it doesn’t reach her eyes. Later, when Anne is invited to have tea with Sister Monica at the orphanage, she is appalled by the Victorian-style iron discipline and is convinced that the children are afraid. Raymond agrees that the orphanage is run on rigid and old-fashioned lines, but the administration of the establishment is nothing to do with him because his predecessor, old Dr Brown, chose to retain care of the inhabitants of the orphanage, even though he sold the rest of the practice.

Anne soon discovers that it is wise to keep her opinion of Sister Monica to herself, as, in the village everyone seems to share Sister Monica’s own view of herself as a wise, wonderful and deeply spiritual woman. Another newcomer to the village warns Anne that Sister Monica either likes you or actively does not, and it soon becomes clear that Sister Monica does not like Anne. Sister Monica’s spite is hard to counter, as her technique is to assure listeners that certain pieces of malicious gossip, which she has started, are untrue, which gives the impression that they really are true, but that Sister Monica is too noble and charitable to confirm them. Sister Monica’s way of dealing with anybody she dislikes seems innocuous, but it can drive people out of the village and destroy careers and relationships.

When the woman who most of the villagers declare is a saint is found dead in the mill stream, Raymond notices that, underneath the platitudes, many people are relieved by her death. It seems that Sister Monica’s determination to know everything that goes on in the village may not be due to simple curiosity but to use her knowledge to gain power over people. The local police, who are not residents of Milham in the Moor, find it impossible to overcome the villager’s reticence and call in Scotland Yard. Detective Chief Inspector Macdonald and Detective Inspector Reeves arrive in the village to investigate Sister Monica’s death and have to contend with the tricks and manipulations of villagers determined to keep their secrets and protect their own people. Despite this the detectives soon discover dark truths in the dead woman’s past that provide motives for murder and may endanger the innocent.

E.C.R. Lorac was a prolific writer of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and most of her detective stories feature Macdonald as he works his way up the ranks of Scotland Yard. Recently, several of Lorac’s stories have been republished by the British Library and Murder in the Mill-Race is an excellent example of her work. The descriptions of the psychology of a community that will protect its own, and its vulnerability to dominance by a disordered personality, is skilfully portrayed. Lorac is also accomplished at describing various settings and the beauty of the scenery forms an evocative contrast to the dark emotions that are seething in the secret lives of the inhabitants. Lorac has a tendency to create mainly unlikeable characters but, in Murder in the Mill-Race, Anne and Raymond are appealing protagonists and Macdonald’s interaction with Reeves is also lively and enjoyable. Murder in the Mill-Race is a fascinating novel and one which I recommend.
Reviewer: Carol Westron

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.

To reads more about E C R Lorac visit

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  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.

To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

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