E.C.R. Lorac: Murder in the Mill-Race

Author: E.C.R. Lorac
Title: Murder in the Mill-Race: A Devon Mystery
Series: Robert MacDonald #37

“Never make trouble in the village” is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbours’ sins and shortcomings, but you must never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.’
When Dr Raymond Ferens moves to a practice at Milham in the Moor in North Devon, he and his wife are enchanted with the beautiful hilltop village lying so close to moor and sky. At first they see only its charm, but soon they begin to uncover its secrets – envy, hatred and malice. A few months after the Ferens’ arrival, the body of Sister Monica, warden of the local children’s home, is found floating in the mill-race. Chief Inspector Macdonald faces one of his most difficult cases in a village determined not to betray its dark secrets to a stranger.

I really enjoyed this…*mild exclamation of surprise*. After all, I hadn’t been overwhelmed by my previous experiences with Lorac and the first few chapters of the book didn’t make me think that this time would be different. We follow a young couple – Raymond and Anne – who has just moved to Devon because he’s a doctor and wants to take over the practice of the old village doctor who is about to retire. They meet the other inhabitants of the village, including Sister Monica who oversees the local children’s home and we’re immediately informed that they don’t like Sister Monica. They talk to each other about how little they like her. Anne meets Sister Monica again, they have a conversation and while they have this conversation we’re again told how little Anne likes her. After that she talks to her husband again about…you know. It got boring, especially because we only got to see Sister Monica being somewhat annoying but nothing that seemed to justify the level of hatred aimed at her.

Well, unsurprisingly Sister Monica gets killed and the focus shifts from other people talking about how horrible she was to Inspector MacDonald trying to figure out who killed her (and admittedly, discovering that enough people had reason to do so, so Anne’s initial assessment wasn’t exactly wrong). And the investigation is again good and solid crime novel fare, admittedly not terribly exciting but I enjoyed the backdrop of the small Devon village a lot. I have already mentioned that I think Lorac is very good at describing the settings and anchoring the crime story firmly in those and this is no exception. In many mysteries set in small villages, those places are described as really cozy and charming but this one really focusses on the claustrophobia that comes with the everyone knows everyone and everybody’s buisness which I definitely prefer. So, after a slow start, I really enjoyed this one.

ARC received from NetGalley

George Bellairs: The Body in the Dumb River

Author: George Bellairs
Title: The Body in the Dumb River. A Yorkshire Mystery
Series: Chief Inspector Littlejohn #35

A decent, hardworking chap, with not an enemy anywhere. People were surprised that anybody should want to kill Jim.’

But Jim has been found stabbed in the back near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) river has been discovered before the killer intended – disturbed by a torrential flood in the night.

Roused from a comfortable night’s sleep Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is soon at the scene. With any clues to the culprit’s identity swept away with the surging water, Bellairs’ veteran sleuth boards a train heading north to dredge up the truth about the real Jim Teasdale and to trace the mystery of this unassuming victim’s murder to its source.

The workpeople had returned to their factories and offices and the market was almost deserted now. All the bargains had gone. The man with the cheese and the chickens had sold up and was packing up his belongings and dismantling his stall. Fruit salesmen were altering their prices, chalked up on brown paper bags and stuck among the fruits on the end of a stick. Oranges at 4d. each in the morning were now four a shilling. A man who sold curtains was holding an auction sale. He was drunk already and now and then gave away a length of material for nothing.

Aren’t you fascinated by that paragraph? Isn’t it…thrilling? Especially considering nothing plot-relevant happens on this market. The investigator simply passes it at the end of his workday. And that’s one of the problems of this book; it gets clogged down with so much description of unnecessary details. It’s not enough to say that a character grabbed his coat and left. We’ll read how he got up, walked to his coat, put it on, walked to the door, opened it and went out. It’s extremely boring and there’s no good mystery to distract me from it. The murder victim is a man who turns out to have been leading a double life. He told his family that he was a travelling salesman but actually had a stall on a travelling carnival and lived there with another woman. The investigation quickly focusses on his first family and every single one is a flat caricature whose only aim is to appear as unlikeable as possible. His father-in-law is even described as having “an indescribable odour of evil and corruption around him”. Just so know he even smells evil…

Of course, these kinds of characters aren’t terribly rare in mysteries. Especially horrible family patriarch is a staple in mysteries. But the thing is that these characters usually get murdered in chapter two or three and so you don’t have too much time to think about just how flat this character really is. Sometimes there are books that have the setup “horrible person gets murdered but only halfway through the book” and honestly, I already have a hard time getting through those because I find it exhausting. Here, none of the horrible people get murdered, they just spent all their time being horrible about each other and about the victim. It’s not particularly enjoyable to read about and so the book left me feeling bored and annoyed in turn.