Still Waters, by E. C. R. Lorac (1949)
Artist Caroline Bourne is nearly fifty and wishes to relocate to the country for a “serene old age”. She purchases a small farm in Lansdale (between Lancaster and the Pennines in England) and an associated bit of land containing a disused quarry, now filled with water, and a cottage beside it. She involves her young cousin Kate Hoggett and Kate’s husband Giles to work the land while she restores the entire estate, including an art studio. (Giles Hoggett is known to the Lorac aficionado through his active assistance to Inspector Macdonald in two earlier cases in the area, as a kind of local Watson.) But Caroline’s path to acquiring the farm is not smooth; the auctioneer seems strangely reluctant to accept her bids, and it’s only due to an expensive car getting trapped in a muddy farm road that she doesn’t have well-heeled and determined competition in the auction. But she prevails … except that strange things are now happening in the neighbourhood, and seem to be focused on a missing farm labourer and the dark water of the flooded quarry. There’s also the mysterious behaviour of the new owner of local Hauxhead Castle, who commissions Caroline to do a brochure promoting the castle in its new role as an expensive hotel; but doesn’t seem to care if the brochure is produced.
Inspector Macdonald has dropped by early in the book to catch up with his old friend Giles and takes a hand when the local constabulary proves itself unable to find the missing labourer. MacDonald, Giles, Kate, Caroline, and the local police investigate a number of small mysterious occurrences in the rural farming community, with all its country ways, until a surprising crime is brought home to the guilty — and the still waters are settled.
Why is this worth reading?
E. C. R. Lorac (the major pseudonym of Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote as Carol Carnac) is an acquired taste and a difficult one for which to provide. Lorac novels are hard to get and expensive; really, ripe for reprinting, if anyone can find the originals from which to reprint. (I’m aware of a gentleman who has been collecting her 71 first editions for decades and still needs eight to complete the set, three of which he doesn’t expect to ever find.) She wrote — I want to call them “gentle” mysteries. Inspector Macdonald was her major detective, but she also wrote about Inspector Ryvet and Chief Inspector Rivers, all of whom are pretty much the same. They are honest, straightforward, morally upright gentlemen who work hard to catch criminals but are also human beings who form friendships among the people they investigate and take pleasure in everyday things that have nothing to do with murder. The stories sometimes involve fairly brutal murders, but there is always a leavening of people involved who are both interesting and non-criminal. It is somehow clear to the reader that certain characters should not and cannot be suspected — they are, to use an overworked word, “nice”. Her books always have nice people in them; friendly, intelligent, everyday people who find themselves brushing up against criminals. In this case they are primarily farmers.
Lora’s writing is really very good. There’s an interesting choice of language throughout; for instance, on the first page, I learned a new word, “shippon”, a kind of farm outbuilding. The conversational tone is well-written; descriptions are clear and direct. And there is a very nice overall tone that is hard to describe — let’s call it “gentility”. This is a writer who is writing with intelligence and a strong sense of social place, and addressing an audience with intelligence who wants to know about that social structure. She does it by telling you about it and by showing you how it works, in an engrossing and yet economical way. You don’t lose sight of the plot, but you do find some enjoyable byways down which to wander for a moment.
There is a lot of interesting material in this particular volume about the difficulties of agriculture in post-war Britain; quotas for this and that, getting planning permission to renovate a cottage and permission to buy building materials, even the right to employ workers to do renovations. There are also currency restrictions, high import duties, food rationing, and the impossibility of filling out the paperwork to make it all happen. And this is the sort of thing I do enjoy reading about in detective fiction; the little details of life that are different from my own present-day existence. I’ve never lived with food rationing but it seems to have produced a very healthy generation … we could probably all use a little post WWII austerity in our lives ;-) The details of the crime, however, will not occupy you for long. This particular volume, uncommon with Lorac I assure you, postpones any kind of actual criminality until quite a way into the volume and unfortunately the suspense is neither well-built nor dramatically relieved. The criminal plot is so slight as to make this almost a novel about the people and the place, and not a murder mystery. Again, this is not what Lorac is usually all about; her murder stories are usually as bloody and direct as anyone else’s.
I’m not familiar with all the volumes, but this is one of a set of stories that the author told set against the background of rural Lansdale, and Giles Hoggett is at this point a recurring character. (There’s a nice moment where the local bobby realizes that Giles has the ear of his superiors and sets out to outdo the amateur detective.) There’s a somewhat explanatory Foreword addressed to the fictional Giles and Kate, but apparently speaking to two real-life people who are their models. Anyway, I had an odd moment when I first read this book, thinking that I had somehow bought the same book under two different titles. Not so. There’s at least one other Lorac novel in my library that has a remarkably similar plot and characters, called Let Well Alone; so similar that I confused them for a moment.
My favourite edition
I’ve only ever seen the edition at the top of this post, Collins White Circle Crime Club 256C, although my edition is perhaps earlier since its cover price is 1/6. However, I haven’t mastered the many details of Collins White Circle editions; this could be from any Commonwealth country and be simultaneously published with the above edition. The “C” in 256C, the serial number on the spine, could stand for Canada or indeed anything at all, I just don’t know. What I do know is that this cover design is fairly constant with a large range of Collins White Circle Crime Club paperback editions, with the twin hooded figures used as the standard cover art. I think this is so that the title-less covers could be printed and shipped to, say, Toronto or New Delhi to have the titles imprinted on locally-printed books … again, just a guess, but I’ve seen the occasional edition with a red title that is obviously a surprint. The design of the two figures has a great Art Deco feel; I always find my heart beats a little faster when I see it from across the room in a bookstore because I might be about to find a really scarce title. Almost all the titles in this series are at least worth a look and some can be very valuable.
How expensive are these? Well, there isn’t a single paperback copy available that I can find for sale on the internet — on ABEbooks, three copies of the first edition in orange boards from 1949, none with a jacket, all Good or better, trading between $45 and $50, without considering postage. Ouch – but a first in jacket might be $300 or more. A paperback copy of the other Lorac title I mentioned, Let Well Alone, will set you back $16 to $18 without considering postage, and this should be a roughly equivalent price to this title. I should add that this publisher’s editions are notoriously fragile and the best purchase for one of these is one in good condition. My own reading copy, which someone scotch-taped to hold on the loose front cover, I paid $4 for and would probably not take $10 today; all these books are scarce and I will probably re-read this in ten or twenty years, so I’ll just keep it. Happy hunting!