These Names Make Clues

A review of These Names Make Clues by E C R Lorac

Edith Caroline Rivett wrote her Chief Inspector Macdonald series – it ran to some forty-eight books although, sadly, many still are out of print – under the nom de plume of E C R Lorac, the surname an anagram of an abbreviated version of her middle name and a further twenty-three under another pseudonym, Carol Carnac. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that her fascination with word play and anagrams should prove the inspiration for a murder mystery story.

Published in 1937, These Names Make Clues, labouring under a clunky title that at least has the merit of describing what is in the tin, has been reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series and is an enthralling, if somewhat overly convoluted, tale that maintains Lorac’s reputation as a fine writer of the genre, even if she does not hit the heights of some of her more distinguished and illustrious contemporaries.

Macdonald is surprised to receive an invitation to attend a party hosted by brother and sister, Graham and Susan Coombes. The theme of the party is a Treasure Hunt and each of the guests are assigned literary pseudonyms – Macdonald’s is Izaak Walton – and part of the evening’s fun is for the guests to unmask each other’s identities. Most are from the literary world and there is a frisson of excitement that a real-life detective will be pitting his wits against writers of detective fiction, about whose grasp of reality the earnest policeman had been somewhat scornful of in an earlier encounter with Graham Coombes, not realising he was an eminent publisher of works of that genre.

As the party gets into full swing, would you believe it, but the lights go out and once power is restored, the guest known as Samuel Pepys has disappeared, only to be found dead in the telephone room. Initially, it is thought that he had died of a heart attack, but it soon transpires that he was electrocuted when he broke a circuit rigged up in the bureau in the room. In a nice twist of irony Pepys is Gradien, whose speciality was writing thrillers which involved death from mechanical contraptions. Who killed him?

On the same evening, Elliott, Gradien’s agent and agent to some of the other guests, is found dead in his office. Was this murder or was it suicide and why was the pistol that killed him inside a grandfather clock? To add a further twist a couple of the guests thought that they saw someone looking like Elliott lurking around the party. Could it have been him, did he kill Gradien and then commit suicide in the comfort of his own office?

There are many twists and turns in a rather convoluted plot. The key to solving the mystery is in the title of the book, the literary pseudonyms given to some of the guests, if unscrambled, pointing a diligent sleuth in the right direction. Curiously, some of the attendees, as well as Macdonald, try their hand at solving the conundrum and arrive at the same point, as does Vernon, Macdonald’s journalist friend who seems to have swallowed a dictionary of Woosterisms. The motivations of some of the party goers in resolving the mystery are not necessarily aligned with Macdonald’s pursuit of justice.  

I had worked out who of the likely suspects had killed Gradien, before the reveal, but Lorac hardly plays fair with the reader, much of the information required to understand the motivation for the crime is not made available to the reader until Macdonald discloses it.

Elliott’s demise rather gets left in the background, as much there to sow confusion around Gradien’s murder as anything else, but it is explained and resolved as the book draws to a close. I’m sure Macdonald will be more circumspect as to which party invites he accepts in future. All in all, a clever, intriguing and entertaining piece of fiction.         

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