Fell Murder: A Lancashire Mystery – E C R Lorac
If you like your murder mysteries to be unhurried and with a strong sense of place, then this novel from the vastly underrated E C R Lorac, published originally in 1944 and now reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, is hard to beat. Lorac clearly has a strong affection for the rather bleak remote fells on the Lancashire Yorkshire borders and this comes out in her almost lyrical description of the landscape.
Richard Garth is the head of one of the leading farming families in the area but he is an obstinate, curmudgeonly old so-and-so. He is set in his ways, a source of frustration to Marion, his hard-working daughter, who is anxious to introduce new ways of working to increase profits at a time when farming, because of the Second World War, is becoming valued again. His second son, Charles, has recently returned from Malaya having lost almost everything and he shows little appetite for farming. Malcolm, the youngest son, has a physical disability, is considered a weakling and a disappointment, preferring to write poetry rather than pull his weight on the farm. Also living on the farm is Elizabeth Meldon, a Land Girl.
The book opens with the return of the prodigal eldest son, Richard, to the area, not to see his family but to reconnect with the landscape in which he grew up. He has been away for twenty-five years in Alberta, having fallen out with his father over his choice of wife, a local girl, whom he took to Canada only for her to die there. Garth senior also had a bitter feud with the girl’s father who was one of his tenants. Garth senior’s body is found dead on the moor, clearly murdered, and the fact that it happened at the time of Richard’s return immediately points the finger of suspicion at him.
Lorac’s go-to detective, Inspector Macdonald, this is the 24th novel she had written featuring him, leads the investigation and immediately discovers a number of people with motive enough to do away with the old man, especially at a time when half the neighbourhood were wandering around with firearms following a fox shoot. Macdonald methodically works his way through the evidence and the list of suspects before he discovers who had committed the murder and how it had been carried out. In truth, it is relatively easy to see who the murderer is, but Lorac’s storytelling is compelling and easily carries the reader along with her.
What comes through loud and clear is Macdonald’s natural empathy with the folk in the area, adopting strategies to overcome the barriers that their natural suspicions of strangers and authority have erected, more so than the heavy-handed local police officer. That said, he takes a rather unnecessary and potentially fatal risk at the end leaving two of the potential suspects together.
My enduring memory of this book will be the loving way that Lorac writes about the rhythms of farming life and the beauty and ruggedness of the landscape, mirrored in the earthy characters of the people who lived there. You cannot help thinking that she realises that come the end of the war this way of life will change for ever. Sadly, she was not wrong.