A review of Post after Post-Mortem by E C R Lorac
One of the literary world’s most intriguing questions is why some writers are remembered long after they had finished writing while others, equally worthy, fall into unwarranted obscurity. Edith Caroline Rivett, who wrote under the nom de plume of ECR Lorac, falls into the latter category, wholly unjustifiably, and it is one of the pleasures of the renaissance of Golden Age detective fiction that her books are slowly but surely being plucked out of obscurity, each occasion one to be rejoiced over. This, the eleventh in her Inspector Macdonald series and originally published in 1936, has recently been reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series.
We are still having problems with our post, during one six-week period we had just three deliveries, a combination of Covid-related sicknesses and reorganisation, we were told. Thankfully, there was nothing of any importance that we had not been advised by other means, but there could have been a missive whose arrival could have changed the complexion of affairs dramatically. Richard Surray’s post has been delayed, not because of staff shortages and managerial incompetence, but because he has moved around a lot. Had he received the letter posted by his sister, Ruth, on the night that she supposedly committed suicide, the verdict of the inquest would have been altogether different.
As it was, Ruth was found dead in her bed, seemingly having taken an overdose. The inquest recorded a verdict of suicide, Ruth was known to be depressive and Richard, a psychologist, knew she was under stress. Richard, keen to avoid causing the Surrays, his highly successful family, any unnecessary distress, wraps up matters with the minimum of fuss. However, the receipt of Ruth’s letter, written seemingly in good spirits, changes his views of her death and he calls Inspector Macdonald to investigate.
Lorac takes more care than usual in portraying Macdonald. He is empathetic, keen to minimise the distress for the family, and yet keen to ensure that justice is done. Unusually, he takes a virulent personal dislike to one of the suspects but battles to ensure that personal animosity does not cloud his judgment. It is a complex problem that he has to solve. There are a large number of potential suspects, some of whom are more plausible than others. As well as Ruth’s murder, there is an “accident” to one of the guests, two of the suspects are poisoned, and the Surray’s home suffers an arson attack.
Their enquiries take the investigating officers, Macdonald to London and Reeves to Mallaig. Reeves has an upsetting period locked in a cupboard and his expertise in ju-jitsu comes in handy. The culprit is unmasked by a rather underhand trick, but the explanation of why and how they were driven to commit the murder and conduct a reign of terror to cover their traces, including an intriguing way to commit arson, is ultimately satisfying.
At its heart, the book is about the psychology of obsession and devotion and how it can lead people to extreme actions. It also demonstrates that once a certain course of action is taken, it leads to further complications. Lorac also dwells on the role of women in society, particularly in the world of academia, publishing, and academia.
While the Surray girls are successful in their own rights, there is an expectation and a certain pressure for them to settle down and get married. Curiously, though, for a story with such a strong theme, the women are remarkably absent from the stage. Ruth is murdered early on, Naomi goes off to Scotland and, despite being a potentially valuable witness or even suspect, is never called for questioning by Macdonald, and Mrs Surray flits around in the background, muttering about the disruption to her household. Perhaps their relative silence makes Lorac’s case about the difficulties facing women seeking to make their way in life more powerful.
I found the book a tad overlong, but it is well-written, intriguingly plotted, and, while Lorac is not entirely open with all the evidence, keeping the reader guessing until the end, it all makes sense in the end. It is a mystery why Lorac is so underrated. Perhaps Inspector Macdonald will tell us why.