42. E.C.R. Lorac Transcript

Caroline: There are a few names that come up a lot in relation to the so called golden age of detective fiction. Agatha Christie, of course, but Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Gladys Mitchell, Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh are also all writers who are more or less associated with that great flourishing of crime writing that took place in Britain between the two world wars.

But then there are the writers who were active and popular around this same time, but their work and reputation hasn’t endured in quite the same way. Perhaps it never sold quite as well, went out of print quickly, fell out of fashion, or didn’t find a later critic to champion it to a new audience. Whatever the reason, it can be time consuming and expensive to get really stuck into their work now, and so beyond a small coterie of devotees, these writers don’t have many modern fans.

Things are beginning to change, though. There are more and more affordable reprinted editions of golden age novels appearing, making it easier to sample these whodunnits without dropping hundreds of pounds on rare books first. But where should you start? That’s where this podcast comes in. And it’s why, today, you’re going to meet E.C.R. Lorac.

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Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.

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I first encountered an E.C.R. Lorac in my local library about ten years ago. The copy I picked up at random one day was a pretty dilapidated book that looked like it had been borrowed and enjoyed a lot in the decades since its publication, and I gave it a second glance mostly because it was in the crime section and the title — The Organ Speaks — attracted me as intriguingly mysterious. When I read it, it turned out to be a story ideally suited to my interests, since it combines a murder plot with classical music, and I read it with enjoyment before returning it to the library and forgetting all about its author for a few years.

I had no idea back then, when I read crime fiction just for fun and wasn’t researching a podcast about it, that I had stumbled by accident upon a rare, acclaimed and probably quite valuable book. When it was first published in 1935, Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed The Organ Speaks in glowing terms for the Sunday Times, praising it as “highly original, highly ingenious, and remarkable for atmospheric writing and convincing development of character”. However, for some reason there are almost no copies of this book to be had these days, and it is yet to be reprinted, so any time one does surface for purchase, the price rockets up very quickly. I was very lucky to have that be my first Lorac, although I had no idea at the time.

The Organ Speaks wasn’t E.C.R. Lorac’s first book, either. That honour goes to The Murder on the Burrows, which was published in 1931, and was quickly followed by a string of other highly competent whodunnits at a pace of roughly two a year. That’s another thing about this author that makes the recent obscurity of their work all the more mysterious — under two pseudonyms, they published 71 detective novels in 27 years, so it’s not as if there’s a lack of material to be enjoyed. And yet I’ve been hunting for the better part of a decade, and I still don’t have anything like a complete set of Lorac books. While some authors rejoice in ubiquitous editions and mass market appeal, others just seem to vanish with no explanation at all.

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E.C.R. Lorac was not this writer’s real name. She was born Edith Caroline Rivett in Hendon, north London, in 1894, the youngest of three daughters born to Harry, a commercial traveller, and his wife Beatrice. The family had a brief sojourn to Australia in the late 1890s when Carol was still small in the hope that the warmer climate would help her father’s poor health, but he died on the turn voyage to England and was buried at sea in June 1900. After that, the three Rivett girls lived in St John’s Wood with their widowed mother and her extended family. Edith was a day pupil at a local girls’ school and then went to the Central School of Arts and Crafts to finish her education.

What she did between her teenage years as Carol Rivett and the publication of her first detective novel when she was 37 in 1931 as E.C.R. Lorac is not very easy to establish.

Sarah: She’s actually quite hard to find out a huge amount about. When I was looking into her life, I could see that she taught for a while and she seemed to have worked in sort of art history as well. She didn’t start writing until her late 30s, so presumably she was making a living by teaching and other work. And it’s quite amazing that she wrote so many books being a late starter really. I mean, starting in her late thirties, you think you’ll only get about ten, fifteen books but she kept going. So I presume that at the time she was making a living by her writing, I know somebody on the Internet did some research and she she was living in a school during the war. So presumably she was teaching then in Devon. So like most writers, she was probably doing writing and other things.

Caroline: This is Sarah Ward, a crime novelist herself and a keen fan of E.C.R. Lorac’s work. I first heard Sarah speaking about Lorac at a conference last year, and among the many interesting insights she had, it was a relief to me to finally understand the origin of the unusual name this author used for her fiction.

Sarah: So she used those the initials of her real name, E. C. R. as the first letters of her pseudonym. And then she also wrote books under the name of Carol Carnac. And so she then turned Carol, her first name, Carol, around to make Lorac. So that’s how she came up with a pseudonym. And I do quite like that. I like writers who play with words and and so on. So I love her pseudonym. But E.C.R. Lorac, of course, whenever anyone writes with initials, even today, you’re never entirely sure of the gender, which is no bad thing in my opinion.

Caroline: Although Lorac’s first detective novel was published at a time when interest in the genre was running very high, it seems that she was not herself immediately part of the same social circle as the likes of Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley, who were key figures in the establishment of the Detection Club in 1930. In fact, the Lorac pseudonym seems to have caused a bit of a shock when the woman herself first showed up.

Sarah: Although I heard that I don’t know if it’s apocryphal, but that Dorothy Sayers thought she was a man until she turned up at the Detection Club. But yeah, so apparently, although she was well known, I don’t think that she must have been on the sort of social circuit if people were surprised by her gender when she turned up at the Detection Club.

Caroline: The novels that Carol Rivett published as E.C.R. Lorac all feature the same detective, Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald, a Scottish policeman based in London at Scotland Yard. Despite his ubiquity in her books, the reader never really learns that much about him. We don’t get anywhere near as close to his private life as we do to that of Peter Wimsey, say, or Hercule Poirot.

Sarah: Chief Inspector MacDonald is a sort of a sort of career detective. He’s unmarried. He loves walking in the countryside and in some respects is possibly a little bit boring. But he because of that, maybe that’s why he doesn’t come into the books until the crime’s firmly established and the suspects and so on. And then you’ve got this sort of quite reassuring presence that we like from our detectives to solve the crime. His sidekicks were often a little bit more interesting. So Peter Reeves, Inspector Peter Reeves is the main one. He’s quite interesting. But there’s often, you know, sort of a hapless constable who gets into some kind of scrape in the books as well. All we know really is she doesn’t talk about MacDonald’s past and not like Christie, who gives us, you know, sort of what Poirot did in Belgium and so on. It’s not like that at all. We know he’s Scottish and he’s not married. And that’s just about it. It’s always on the source of the crime and the sets of characters around the particular crime.

Caroline: So if it’s not the sleuth that provides the attraction for Lorac’s books, why are they now some of the most sought after purchases for serious collectors? I can’t be sure, of course, but I think it’s because these stories have something that is actually quite rare in detective fiction from this period: immersive and well described settings. The places where these whodunnits take place are always really vividly described and evoked, which adds immeasurably to the pleasure of these books. This is where much of Lorac’s skill as a writer lies, Sarah says.

Sarah: She’s very good at plotting her books for the place. So, for example, the book set in Devon, for example, Murder in the Mill Race, which is a British Library publication. It’s full of sort of quite a bleak Devon. It’s not the Devon of the thatched cottages that we know. It’s got a sort of moorland setting and so on. So she’s very good at sort of picking up individual parts of a place and using it to the best in the crime novel. In comparison, her Lancashire books have a very northern feel to them, which I love as well. I particularly like regional writing sets in the North and Midlands, and her Lunesdale books are absolutely fantastic about sort of bringing to life the farming community. Her books often have a strong emphasis on farming, which makes it sound boring, but it isn’t at all. She sort of shows the hardship of working on the land.

Caroline: And Lorac isn’t just a rural writer. A Londoner herself, her novels set in the capital are some of my favourites, especially the ones set during the Second World War, which do a brilliant job of capturing what it was really like to live through momentous events on a personal, day by day level. Murder By Matchlight, which is about a murder witnessed in the moment a match flared up in the blackout instituted during the Blitz, is a case in point.

Sarah: It’s talking about the Blitz and what it’s like to live with the blackouts. And of course, all sorts of deeds can be done when there’s no lights. And so wherever she’s writing about, she’s very good at evoking a particular period and a particular landscape.

Caroline: Whether they’re set in London, or Lancashire, or Devon, all of the E.C.R. Lorac books that I’ve read are firmly rooted in their settings. Plenty of whodunnits from this time are set in an imaginary countryside or a city that feels like a stage set, or the plot is plonked down in a random area so that the publisher could market the book as “a Scottish mystery” or similar. But in Lorac, the places matter, and her novels feel deeper and richer for the space she gives to atmosphere and scenery beyond the mechanics of the murder plots.

After the break: how to find your first Lorac.

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It’s hard to pin down exactly why a writer’s work disappears from view, as E.C.R. Lorac’s did. She carried on writing detective novels right up until her death in 1958, and many of them were published on both sides of the Atlantic, but they seem to have been largely neglected since then. There are lots of examples of this happening throughout the twentieth century, and not just with crime novels, Sarah says.

Sarah: And these writers have been incredibly popular in their time. And then they go into obscurity. And I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason for it. She has been called a humdrum writer to me because she wrote so many books and not all of them are brilliant, of course, especially if you’re writing that many. But when she gets it right, I think her books can be sort of inspiring, really. So one of my favourite books of hers is called Picture of Death. And it’s that’s that’s one of the northern books. And it’s got all the sort of hallmarks of a Gothic thriller. You’ve got this sort of crumbling house. You’ve got a picture that falls off the wall and kills somebody. You’ve got squabbles over inheritance. It’s got a sort of the classic golden age motifs with a slightly darker twist. And and I love it.

This word “humdrum” is an interesting one, and I’d like to return to it in a future episode because it’s a big topic within detective fiction. It’s a term popularised by the crime writer and critic Julian Symons, who used the word “humdrum” in a pejorative sense from the 1950s onwards to describe detective novels past or present that he felt were dull and lacking in excitement. Sometimes, it’s applied to writers like Freeman Wills Crofts who spent more time developing complex alibis than strong characters or John Rhode who largely focused on the puzzle element of the whodunnit.

Sarah: You see, I didn’t really know the term humdrum until I started to meet more golden age writers and go to conferences and so on, because it’s very subjective, isn’t it, really? I mean, if you love a writer, you want to read the same – not the same story over and over again. But that’s what you the type type of writing, the type of story, the type of mystery is what you want. Over and over again.

Caroline: It is true, as Sarah says, that E.C.R. Lorac wrote a lot of books and not all of them are completely brilliant — inevitable, surely, in such a long writing career. In that sense, perhaps she could be described as “humdrum”, but I also think that that is not necessarily a bad thing. It is all a matter of personal taste.

Sarah: So for me, I wouldn’t call her a humdrum writer. But then I can understand what the term means in terms of other golden age writers that I think aren’t as interesting for me to say. I mean, no one is alive all of a sudden upset anyone. But yeah. So I’m not a big fan of Edmund Crispin. I’m probably committing heresy by saying that. But I, I wouldn’t call him a humdrum writer. He’s just not the writer for me. Every book I read, I sort of don’t really engage massively in the story. And so it is subjective, the term humdrum. And I personally love Lorac. And if a Lorac dropped on my doormat tomorrow, I would clear my reading list and go straight to that because I immediate know the detective, whether it’s set in London or Lancashire or Devon, I’ll know it’s going to be a great sort of story set set in the landscape with a satisfying conclusion. And so she’s not humdrum for me.

Rhythm and routine are reassuring. It’s part of the reason why recurring detectives are popular in crime fiction, after all, because readers like to experience the same characters in slightly different scenarios each time. And E.C.R. Lorac was really good at that — her books have her ups and downs, but the quality is really remarkably consistent across the ones that I’ve managed to read.

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Until very recently, if you wanted to read E.C.R. Lorac, you needed to have deep pockets or friends with very extensive libraries. Secondhand copies of her original editions often go for hundreds of pounds on online auction sites, and in the past I haven’t been able to find many digital editions either. But that’s changing, thanks to reprint projects such as the British Library Crime Classics series, which is bringing rare works by overlooked authors back into easy accessibility. There are five E.C.R. Lorac novels currently available from this imprint, and a sixth to be published in August. One of her Carol Carnac books, Crossed Skis, also came out earlier this year — these don’t feature Inspector Macdonald, and are slightly more in the psychological thriller vein than the Lorac whodunnits, but from the ones I’ve been able to find are very enjoyable nonetheless.

The British Library titles are a good place to start if we’ve whetted your appetite for E.C.R. Lorac, but if you’ve already inhaled Bats in the Belfry, Murder by Matchlight, Fell Murder, Murder in the Mill Race and Fire in the Thatch, at least for now, you’re going to have to widen your search to local libraries and online auctions. But where to start?

Sarah: So I really like Shroud of Darkness. And it’s one of the books that’s easier to find, you will find secondhand copies around that must have had a bigger reprint. And it starts off now. A big theme of Lorac is trains, transport. So quite a few things happen on trains or in cars. And in this particular one, there’s a train and a mist and there’s a very agitated young man on the train who then when he gets off at the station, something happens to him. It’s a London based book, and I love it because it’s very, very atmospheric. You’ll get a sense of what Paddington is like. And also, you get the sense of how people live in London, that they’re sort of they live in it. Some of the suspects live in subdivided flats and they sort of boil an egg for tea and so on. And I just love the whole period. So Shroud of Darkness would be my recommendation.

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As I talked about on the recent episode about book collecting, there’s a deep satisfaction to be had from tracking down rare or less well known whodunnits that you are desperate to read and keep on your shelves. And E.C.R. Lorac is a great writer to collect. Her books are, by and large, very readable and her mysteries are satisfying. There’s also enough still out there, I think, that you can amass a reasonable stack of her books without spending too much money, which is always a plus. She also writes about things that you don’t often find in crime novels — what it was like to run a farm during wartime regulations, for instance, or how easily identities were shed and acquired during the Blitz. I hope we’ve whetted your appetite to discover more of Lorac, and I wish you good hunting for her books.

Who knows, maybe one day I’ll chance upon a copy of The Organ Speaks again.

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This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton and edited by Euan McAleece. Many thanks to my guest for this episode, Sarah Ward — you can find a link to pre order her next book, The Quickening, in the podcast description right now. You can also find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/ecrlorac where there will also be information about how to get old of all E.C.R. Lorac books mentioned. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.

If you become a paying supporter of the podcast, you get access to the excellent Shedunnit Book Club community, where we read books together, listen to bonus episodes of this podcast, and discuss all things detective fiction in the private members’ forum. You can join now at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.

I’ll be back on 22 July with another episode.