Caroline: Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
This is another episode of Queens of Crime at War, a series looking at what the best writers from the golden age of detective fiction did once that period came to an end with the start of the Second World War.
Today, we’re focusing on a writer who didn’t necessarily get described as a “queen of crime” during her lifetime, but who I think absolutely deserves the title now. She published dozens of detective novels during her career that were both popular and critically acclaimed, she created a memorable sleuth character, and she pushed the boundaries of the whodunnit form in interesting ways. The years of the second world war were pivotal for her subsequent literary success, and saw her rise through the ranks to join the elite group at the top of the genre that also included the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. But just a few decades after the war ended, her books had gone out of print and it’s only recently that she had been rediscovered and appreciated by a wide audience once more. I’m talking, of course, about E.C.R. Lorac.
E.C.R Lorac was the pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett, known to her friends as Carol. She used her real initials and reversed her nickname to create her pseudonym, under which she published her first detective novel in 1931, The Murder on the Burrows. This was a story inspired by a popular family holiday destination for the Rivetts, Bideford Bay holiday park in Devon, and opens with a body discovered in a car found abandoned on the burrows, or dunes, there. Published at the height of the whodunnit’s popularity in the middle of the golden age of detective fiction, it fared well enough that Lorac’s publisher was keen for more of her work, and she began to write at a very rapid rate, publishing nine novels altogether between 1931 and 1935. And importantly both for her career and our story today, she seemed to get better with every book.
Martin: I think the 1930s saw Lorac rising through the ranks, if you like, as a crime writer. She began by being published by Sampson Low which was a publisher who think it’s fair to say didn’t rank in the top echelon. And she wrote quite a few books published by Sampson Low, but she was taken up by Collins Crime Club in the mid thirties. And I think that that is a good illustration of the growing esteem in which she was held.
Caroline: This is Martin Edwards, who will be a familiar voice to those of you who listened to the first episode in this series. He’s a crime writer himself, a noted historian of the genre, and perhaps most importantly for today, a longtime reader and fan of E.C.R. Lorac’s who has been instrumental in bringing some of her books back into print. As he says, her switch in publisher was a major step up for Lorac, and a very good sign that she was expected to keep finding new readers.
Martin: Collins Crime Club of course was an enormously successful imprint, I think over 2000 books in the end, over the years, were published. And of course not all of them were masterpieces, but in general, it’s fair to say that many of the authors published by Collins Crime Club were at the upper end of the scale in terms of reputation and popularity. Christie, of course, being right at the pinnacle. And I think that that is bound to have done her good in terms of reputation and sales.
Caroline: I think even today a crime writer would be thrilled to be taken on by the same publisher that puts out Agatha Christie’s books, and I’m sure that effect was just as powerful in the mid 1930s when Christie was, arguably, at the peak of her powers. Lorac’s first book with Collins was Crime Counter Crime in 1936, which is a fascinating mystery set in the world of pre WW2 politics, and she was to stay with them for the rest of her career as a mainstay of the list. And Lorac received a couple of other boosts in the mid 1930s that helped her connect with her fellow detective novelists.
Martin: She was reviewed positively by Dorothy L Sayers in the Sunday Times in the mid thirties. I think that that probably helps — Sayers, although she only reviewed for just over two years was very, very influential as a commentator on the genre.
Caroline: Who wouldn’t want a good review from that most expert and forthright critic of crime fiction, Dorothy L. Sayers?
Martin: Sayers was very keen on a book called The Organ Speaks, a very rare book, which I was fortunate enough to read. I have to say that personally. I was a bit disappointed.
I’ll give it another try and see if I feel better about it at a later date, but that one I thought dragged a bit for me, but Sayers greatly admired it. . And I think one or the two other reviewers did as well. So it may be that their judgments are fairer than mine.
Caroline: I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that this notice for her 1935 novel will have smoothed Lorac’s path to a bigger publisher and more readers. And then, she received what some would say was the ultimate accolade for a crime writer at this time.
Martin: And then she was elected to membership of the detection club. Again, I think a sign in general of the growing esteem in which she was held.
Caroline: Lorac was part of the Detection Club’s 1937 intake, alongside Nicholas Blake (aka Cecil Day-Lewis), Christopher Bush and Newton Gayle, which was the joint penname of the American duo of Muna Lee and Maurice Guinness. Because of the oncoming war, this was the last batch of initiations that the Club did until 1946, when it came back together in peacetime once more.
From all of this, we can form a pretty clear picture of E.C.R. Lorac’s literary fortunes in the 1930s. She was absolutely on the up.
Martin: I think that her story during the 1930s is one of climbing the ladder carefully, quite painstakingly, perhaps, but definitely there’s move up in terms of reputation. And also of course as you keep writing, you develop your skills and I think we see this in the Lorac books.
I do think that her very first book Murder on the Burrows is a really good debut. But in general terms, the books that she wrote in the later part of the thirties I think were generally stronger than the early ones. And it’s a sign of increasing competence as you write you feel that you can achieve things that maybe you’re uncertain about at an early stage in your career.
Caroline: Her books just kept getting better, as Martin says. And that was fortunate, because what she did next would have tested any writer’s skills.
Caroline: E.C.R. Lorac’s books up until out break of the war are fairly typical for a crime writer of the time. She created a Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Macdonald, who she put into each plot, and she varied her locations and style according to the inspiration of the moment. As the consultant to the British Library Crime Classics series, which has republished quite a few of Lorac’s books over the last few years, Martin has done his best to acquaint himself with as much of her work as possible. These are his picks from what we might call Lorac’s early period.
Martin: Well there’s a book that is featured recently in the British library series called These Names Make Clues, which I think it’s a very entertaining one. It may be as close as she came to writing a Christie type whodunnit. I also think Bats in the Belfry, a slightly earlier book, is a good one, very atmospheric London setting. And I think that you see that there’s a growing confidence. She tries different things, different approaches to narrative in the books. She was, of course, very prolific. She wrote a considerable number of books and not all of them inevitably were at the same level.
Caroline: Bats in the Belfry, which was first published in 1937, is also a favourite of mine. It’s a grimy, Gothic novel that both gestures back towards the early work of writers like John Dickson Carr and even Edgar Allen Poe, while also containing a contemporary puzzle worthy of a new Detection Club member. Lorac’s version of London feels authentically of its time, too, with some of the slightly less central areas still retaining more of an insular, “village” feel. And the belfry of the title is really just very creepy in a way that makes for very satisfying reading.
These Names Make Clues, published the same year **also feels very of its moment, although perhaps in some aspects it harks back to the 1920s. The mystery is built around a treasure hunt, which had been a staple of the so called “puzzle craze” after the First World War, and there’s some fun code-breaking elements as well.
Chief Inspector Macdonald isn’t a wildly charismatic presence like Hercule Poirot but he is a solid, wry and interesting detective. I’d say he has more in common with Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn than any of the other major golden age sleuths, and Lorac is understated in the way that she uses him. Macdonald is clever but also circumspect, capable of forming theories but willing to wait until they are properly proven to make his final move. In one sense, she slightly anticipates the coming popularity of the police procedural, and it certainly can be very satisfying to read about Macdonald and his colleagues putting in the legwork to build a case.
After the break: E.C.R. Lorac goes to war.
In the first episode of this series, I talked about how Agatha Christie spent her solitary years during WW2 writing a frankly astonishing number of novels and stories that, with a couple of notable exceptions, don’t directly address the reality of the war at all. In fact, it wasn’t until I started thinking about it properly that I even realised that a book like The Body in the Library was written during World War Two — on the surface, it feels like it could have come from any time in the preceding decade.
E.C.R. Lorac, who was also pretty prolific in the early 1940s, went in a different direction. She was also publishing at least one novel a year during the war, but she chose to address the war head on and weave it prominently into the plots of some of them, and in others it is there as a background presence. I asked Martin why it was that Lorac chose to write directly about the war, rather than serving up solely escapist stories as other writers at the time did.
Martin: I would guess, and it is only a guess, that it reflects that some writers like to address the situation that they’re in right now and others, if they find it unattractive are very glad to escape from it. And certainly I’m in that latter camp, I must say, as a writer myself, the escapism does appeal to me. But Lorac clearly took a different view. She was one of those, like the people who are writing about lockdown and pandemic already right now, she was one of those who addressed the nature of what was going on around her immediately. And that’s of course, very valuable now because we get this living social history.
Caroline: That’s the fascinating thing about Lorac’s WW2 mysteries — you get to read about the realities of the war written as it was still happening, rather than with hindsight. Lorac didn’t know how much of London would be destroyed by the Blitz, or whether Britain would be on the winning side in the end, when she wrote books like Checkmate to Murder and Murder by Matchlight. They can feel a little jarring now, when we’re so used to WW2 period dramas that are created by people who never lived through that time. As ever with any kind of history, what felt very pressing and urgent in the moment isn’t necessarily what emerges as the most prominent feature of a situation once the dust has settled. This made Lorac’s approach a risky one, but she did it anyway.
Martin: For instance, if you’re writing about a war and you don’t know what the outcome of the war is going to be, then parts of what you write may date very quickly. And although they may be extremely interesting social history in terms of lively, novel reading, they may not always work quite so well. That’s the risk that you run if you do the sort of thing that Lorac did in those books. But she clearly found it interesting. Maybe therapeutic, I don’t know, to write about what was going on around her, devastating though it was.
Caroline: In some of Lorac’s wartime novels, like 1944’s Fell Murder, the war is really a backdrop for the action. That is one of her rural mysteries set in the Lunesdale area of Lancashire, and concerns a farming family. The restrictions placed on agriculture at the time because of the conflict feature strongly, as does the difficulties that the war has given the police trying to investigate a crime in a scattered, remote hamlet.
But in other stories, the war is front and centre — these are whodunnits that wouldn’t work without the restrictions that the war imposed on people. 1945’s Murder by Matchlight is an excellent example of this, with Lorac utilising the blackout rules to construct a creepy murder scenario in which the killing is glimpsed only for a second as a match is struck in the total darkness. The blackout also features heavily in 1944’s Checkmate to Murder, with it providing a plausible excuse for a suspect to walk outside at a crucial moment.
That book contains another excellent example of what Martin was saying about the risks involved in being too contemporary in one’s references. A key protagonist of Checkmate to Murder is a Special Constable, who discovers a body in an almost abandoned house while on patrol in a north London street. Now, when I first read this book, I didn’t really know what a Special Constable was, so I had to do a bit of research and learn that they were volunteer police officers recruited to swell the ranks of the ordinary police when so many men were called up into the armed forces.
They were unpaid and often retired men who had some background in other forms of policing, such as in the colonies or the military. Their duties officially extended to enforcing blackouts, assisting with evacuations and air raid marshalling, and any other war-related business. Once I understood this, the tension that Lorac creates between her rather pompous Special Constable, the regular police officers, and the young solider suspected of the crime makes a lot more sense — readers in 1944 would have recognised immediately that the Special Constable was exceeding his remit by getting involved with a murder investigation, and probably have found this bumptious character quite amusing.
The confusion created by the war, which had caused a mass displacement of people as they were evacuated or called up for service, was both a frustration and a boon to the detective novelist. In a novel like the kind that Lorac was publishing in 1944 and 1945, it was no longer realistic for a detective to say “we’ll just wire to this suspect’s previous residence and find out all we need to know about him”. Bombing was destroying records and households, and even if the paper trail still existed finding someone with the time to follow it was tough. Families no longer automatically lived together, with children evacuated and adults posted to different places according to the dictates of the various services. Lodging houses such as the one in Murder by Matchlight, where everybody lives in close quarters but can’t really verify anything about their neighbours, became very common. As an officer says at one point in Checkmate to Murder about the difficulties of tracking anybody down in all of this confusion: “After a lot of trouble we shall trace him to three or four other places, and then find he came back to London one night and got his ticket in a raid.” The war created more work to do with fewer resources for the wartime detective.
Another interesting point comes from the trauma that everyone who lived through the war suffered. Detective novelists have always had to work hard to create plausible uncertainty around things like when a shot was heard, so that the pool of suspects can be kept large and the reader nicely confused about who actually had the opportunity to commit the crime. Lorac does this in Checkmate to Murder simply by having one character suggest that it’s no surprise that nobody at an evening gathering in an artist’s studio can be sure if they heard a shot, and if so at what time. “Londoners have heard so many bangs during their recent history that a pistol shot isn’t so impressive a row as it used to be,” he says. When it was quite normal to wake up and find that a street you had walked down the day before had been reduced to a heap of rubble, it’s not that surprising that a few little bangs would be put down to the general noise and fuss of the war effort, rather than a murder attempt.
Lorac herself moved around a few times during the war.
Martin: Well, at the start of the second world war, she was still in London where she’d lived and which of course is a setting of quite a number of her books in the 1930s. So The Organ Speaks for instance is set in central London, Murder in St John’s Wood, Murder in Chelsea and so on two more very rare books. She was evacuated to north Devon. There is a letter that’s been around on the internet being sold for a fabulous sum in which she talks about the horror of the war, the sickening insanity of the war. And then at some point I’m not sure precisely when, but I think it was before 1944, she moves up to Aughton in the northwest of England, Lunesdale.
Caroline: That letter was written in November 1940, after a friend of Lorac’s was killed while fire fighting in London. “Most of my other friends have been bombed or burned out of their homes. What a sickening insanity it all is,” she said. It is perhaps hard to understand why you want want to spend even more time thinking about the everyday horrors of it all — Christie’s approach of offering both herself and her readers some escapism starts to feel quite natural. But for Lorac, and for some other writers like John Rhode and the Nap Lombard duo, writing about the war was cathartic, a way of controlling and taming the fear.
Martin: You can probably see that there’s an element of therapy, both for the authors and for the readers in that escapist piece of fiction, but with a wartime setting.
Caroline: E.C.R. Lorac saw out the war with her sister and brother in law in Lancashire, and then based herself there permanently. She clearly loved London, and wrote some very evocative prose about the city at its worst moments during the war. But she never went back — Lunesdale had captured her heart.
Martin: She liked the area and she having moved there, settled there and not only made a home but became quite a prominent and certainly a popular figure in the local community. She moved there during the war and remained there until she died.
It is a beautiful part of the world. When I was shown round there, quite astonishingly by coincidence we bumped into someone who owns the house, which is the setting for one of the Lorac novels. So that was a real bonus, a bit of fun. And it just shows how much of an impression she made that, that people remembered it.
Caroline: Lorac continued to publish a crime novel a year, sometimes two, after the war until her death in 1959. And then perhaps because of their intense timeliness, or through some other quirk of fate, her books went out of print and were virtually unobtainable for decades — until the last few years, when the British Library have started regularly republishing them. They’re very much worth reading, and I think entirely justify Lorac having the title of “Queen of Crime”. And her wartime mysteries are the best of all.
This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and my guest was Martin Edwards. You can find out him and his work in the description for this episode or at shedunnitshow.com/queensofcrimeatwar. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Original music by Martin Zaltz Austwick. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin.
Thanks for listening. The next episode in the Queens of Crime at War series will be out in a week’s time.