E. C. R. Lorac (pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett 1894-1958) has certainly been experiencing a renaissance with lovers of Golden Age crime in the last 5 years, mostly attributable to the excellent British Library Crime Classics imprint, which has reprinted more than ten of her books in that time, predominantly from her most celebrated series, featuring Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald of Scotland Yard. Several booksellers I have spoken to have also reported a dramatic increase in demand for her books in the second-hand market as readers seek to expand their collections with copies of the other titles in the series. However, apart from a reprinting of Death On The Oxford Road (Chief Inspector Macdonald #4) in 2000 by Swallowtail Books, which is unfortunately now hard to obtain, none of the first 10 mysteries in the series are available to buy without tracking down elusive and increasingly expensive early editions. I have read and enjoyed all the British Library reprints but always like to explore an authors books in publication order if possible to see how they develop. So I have been taking advantage of being fortunate enough to live close to the library itself to read the books not available in reprints. My review of her debut, the first Macdonald mystery The Murder On The Burrows, is already on this blog and I was looking forward to continuing with the next.
Lorac is always strong on topography and the atmosphere that it can generate and The Affair On Thor’s Head is no exception. While she based her first mystery on a real location in a part of England she knew well, Northam Burrows in Devon, this time the action takes place mostly in the area close to a fictional promontory on the Sussex downs, which is described in such topographical detail that it is truly convincing to the reader. An excellent map is also included to aid the text, a feature which is most welcome and not always included in mysteries which would greatly benefit from the addition.
Here Macdonald is summoned to aid the local police in investigating the death of a man found in the ruins of a burnt out hut close to the edge of the cliff at the titular Thor’s Head. At first the police in the district believe it is the body of the resident of the hut, a local ne’er-do-well called Jones who was known for poaching and his friendships with other ‘undesirables’ such as gypsies and sailors. However, testimony from a local Doctor called Falton who had come across a stranger close to the scene a few hours earlier and evidence that the fire was deliberate soon force them to rethink their conclusions. The stranger had told Falton that he was in the area to right a wrong committed 25 years earlier during the voyage of a ship called Orramirra from Melbourne to London and Jones, who has vanished, changes from victim to potential perpetrator when the body is definitely identified as the stranger.
Fortunately for Macdonald, the stranger had told enough of his story to Dr Falton that the former has a starting point for his enquiries. A passenger named Dainton, who was terminally ill and died before reaching his destination, had entrusted his money to a man named Rowell who was caring for him on the voyage, with the expectation that it would be handed to his wife if he did not survive. However, Rowell disappeared after arriving in London and the stranger believed he had recognised him and so was on his track. Macdonald’s job is therefore to find anyone else who might have been on the ship, no mean task 25 years after the event and with the great war having taken place in the meantime.
An attempt to murder Falton and another one that targets Macdonald himself give him a start and with the aid of a shipping office agent he does eventually track down someone who was on the ship on the fateful voyage. As in the previous Macdonald mystery The Murder On The Burrows it is in the past histories of the various characters that the solution is hidden and he and his colleagues are painstaking and methodical in tracing, questioning and investigating them. Eventually Macdonald very smartly deduces what has become of the vanished Jones and it is that which enables him to set a trap for the real criminal, who proves to have constructed a convincing but ultimately breakable alibi.
The Affair On Thor’s Head appeared only five months after Macdonald’s debut and possibly due to the short time between the two a couple of small errors do creep in. For example, local policeman Superintendent Walker is unaccountably demoted to Inspector about halfway through the book then is back as a Superintendent later on. Lorac also corrects an error from her debut, where Macdonald is aided by Superintendent Jenkins, who is obviously working under Macdonald’s direction. Here Jenkins has more properly been re-designated as an Inspector, a much more believable scenario.
These small niggles, which could and should be corrected in any reprinting, plus the fact that I spotted the murderer early on (though not the method) didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this book. Lorac’s writing was always of high enough quality to retain my interest all the way to the end and at no point did I feel like putting it aside. Hopefully the increasing interest in Lorac’s work will lead to reprints of some of these earlier books – unless there is any copyright reason which prevents it as they were published by Sampson Low. Until then my advice to anyone fortunate enough to spot a copy in the wild is grab it while you can.
Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald #2
Preceded by The Murder On The Burrows
Succeeded by The Greenwell Mystery
No record of any modern reprint, ebook or audiobook has been traced by the reviewer.
First Edition Details
Originally published by Sampson Low, Marston & co ltd 1932
Black Cloth Boards pp 312 + 32pp adverts, 8vo
Title and Author stamped in gold on spine. ‘Sampson Low’ stamped in gold at bottom.
Front cover plain with indented box close to edges.
Dustwrapper priced at 7/6 net on spine.
R E Faust
Please leave any comment, corrections or suggestions below.
There are e-book versions of many of Lorac’s book on Amazon, but I don’t know the publisher.
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