Murder In The Mill-Race

A review of Murder in the Mill-Race by E C R Lorac

What is it you look for in a murder mystery story and what is it that tips it from being good to a classic? I was musing on this after I had finished Murder in the Mill-Race by E C R Lorac, initially published in 1952 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series. I look for something that is cleverly and, ideally, fairly plotted, entertaining, well-written and one that leaves very few, if any, loose ends behind. The quality of the writing is also important, an engaging story, a deft touch, an ability to conjure up a scene or a character with a few strokes of the pen. A splash of humour does not go amiss.

Edith Caroline Rivett was a prolific writer who used two pseudonyms, E C R Lorac and Carol Carnac, was a prolific writer who sadly fell out of favour but is now beginning to attract the attention that she deserved. I am becoming one of her fans and what sets her out from the crowd, at least in the books that I have read, is her ability to conjure up a scene and her love of the British countryside which comes through loud and clear in her pages. She understands and conveys the distinctive features of the area in which her tale is set, in this book Milham in the Moor up in the Devon moors, and the claustrophobic nature of village life.

This more than makes up for the story lines which are not as complex as those of her contemporaries. Also known as Speak Justly of the Dead, Murder in the Mill-Race is a rather simple story, involving a woman who is found dead, drowned at the Mill-Race, in exactly the same spot as a woman in her charge died a year earlier. The latest victim has also received a blow to the back of the head which would have been anatomically impossible to have received if she had thrown herself off the bridge in a suicide bid. It is murder most foul, but who is the culprit?

In truth, it is fairly easy to work out whodunit although the why is a little more taxing. The victim is the self-styled Sister Monica, a rather austere, forbidding, malevolent woman who runs the local children’s home with a rod of iron and with a staff of compliant servants. Doctor Ferens and his wife are newcomers to the village and take an immediate dislike to Sister Monica and her methods, which these days would be termed as a form of child abuse. The old doctor, whose practice Ferens has taken over, will not relinquish responsibilities for the children’s home.

The village seem to be in awe and fear of Sister Monica. Where Lorac is really fascinating is in her portrayal of the villagers, determined to keep their secrets to themselves and not to open up to strangers. The local constabulary are frustrated in their efforts to find out what has happened and Scotland Yard in the form of Chief Inspector Macdonald arrives on the scene.  

Like the Ferens, Macdonald has an outsider’s eye and can see the strange hold that Sister Monica had on the village. He patiently digs into the murder and quickly realises that Sister Monica was not the paragon of virtue that she and the villagers portrayed. As more evidence is revealed, the village almost en masse change their story, determined to keep what belongs to the village in the village. It takes Macdonald’s patient perseverance and an impromptu demonstration of what happened at the Mill-Race for the truth to come out.

The Ferens are an interesting couple and by the standards of the time, quite liberated. Raymond involves his wife in all their major decisions, a refreshing change. They strike up a good relationship with Macdonald and conclude the book by discussing the merits of intuition as opposed to hard evidence. I suppose it was this quasi-philosophical discussion that set me musing about the nature of a classic crime novel.

On this basis, this enjoyable read is good but not quite a classic.

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