A review of Murder of a Martinet by E C R Lorac
Family relationships can be fraught at the best of times. Imagine what they would be like if all the children, now adults, lived together in one house with their spouses and their parents. This is the intriguing scenario for the 1951 novel by Edith Caroline Rivett aka E C R Lorac, published in the UK as Murder of a Martinet but now to be found under its alternative American title, I Could Murder Her. The e-book version I bought bore the latter title.
Muriel Farringdon is an overbearing mother who relishes getting her own way. Her husband, Eddie, is easy-going. He had a daughter by his previous marriage, Madge, whose life is a round of unremitting drudgery, cooking, cleaning, and organising household affairs for the rest of the family. She had suffered a mental breakdown following her work as a nurse during the war. Tony is Muriel’s favourite, but his wife, Anne, despises her. The twins have had an unconventional upbringing, are close, but wild. Judith, also living with her husband in the house, avoids Muriel at all costs.
On the fateful day Muriel visits Madge in the kitchen to confirm arrangements for a dinner party to celebrate her birthday, which she expects Madge to organise and cook. There is a row during which Madge reveals her plans to take up a post in America. Muriel, who has a dodgy ticker, retires to her bed, the old family doctor, Baring, attends to her, but during the night she dies. The cause of death seems to have been a shot of insulin. Who killed her?
Baring, having one tot of whisky more than is good for him, wraps himself and his car around the lamp post. His colleague, Dr Scott, is suspicious and refuses to sign the death certificate. The police are called. Enter Chief Inspector Macdonald and his sidekick, Reeves.
This is a taut, psychological murder mystery with Lorac at her best. All the suspects have motive enough for doing away with Muriel, there had been enough toing and froing on the stairway that night to implicate most, but Macdonald’s analysis of the psychological profiles of the family members and their immediate circle leads him to the conclusion that there can only be one real suspect. The denouement is tragic but fits well with the fraught psychological drama that Lorac has penned.
In many ways the book represents an end of an era, a farewell to an England of the past. Prior to the war, the family lived in more comfortable circumstances and enjoyed a full complement of servants. After the war, straitened financial circumstances have forced the adult children to live with their parents. Muriel has never adjusted to the change and simply expects Madge, ably assisted by Mrs Pinks, to run the household as before.
The war has also opened Eddie’s eyes and he has begun to question the old order, embracing a more socialist world view, which he explores with a group of darts players whose club he has joined at the local pub. Muriel, of course, thinks he is still going to his gentlemen’s club, but the fees are such that he cannot afford them. Pressing financial concerns, a change in world view and the ratcheting up of family tensions and feuds means that something has to give.
The murder was almost perfectly planned, and perhaps the culprit would have got away with it, but for that extra dram of whisky. There is no sympathy for Muriel and the reader, ambivalent to her demise, is left wondering whether some form of natural justice has been served.
I thought it was an excellent, enjoyable, and thought-provoking read from an author whose works are well worth seeking out.