Death of an Author

With over 100 books by 40 or so authors, there must surely be a danger that the British Library Crime Classics is starting to dredge the depths of its collection of detective fiction from the 1920s to the 1950s. Perhaps it is a fading interest on my own part, but I must admit that I have found more recent releases to be suffering from that law of diminishing returns. E.C.R. Lorac’s ‘Death of an Author’ is unfortunately a case in point, for whilst there are flourishes of what makes Lorac’s other books so brilliant, there is too an unfortunate sense of this particular book being a not entirely successful exercise in style. In this it reminds me somewhat of George Bellairs’ earlier books, in which he also seemed to cast about rather, dallying in theatrical prose structure before finally settling on the enormously satisfying style in which his Littlejohn character worked through numerous mysteries from the late 1940s to the end of 1960s. Perhaps it was this decision to experiment with style that led to feature series detective Robert Macdonald being excluded from this book. He is replaced instead by two detective characters; one from Scotland Yard called Warner and the other a local Inspector by the name of Bond. Not James.

The book starts well enough, with an intriguing situation in which identities are shrouded and an underpinning theme of gender inequality in the publishing industry echoing wider society is laid. Such socially and culturally politicised themes can often make novels rather hard work, and it is certainly to Lorac’s credit that she manages this particular element of the book with a withering wit. It’s tricky to highlight this without giving away spoilers to some extent, but there is a marvellous exchange early in the book where a rather chauvinist author is told in no uncertain terms: “You envisage women still as the sheltered, emotional playthings of men. The woman of today is beginning to see through the fraud; in short, we are realising ourselves, developing our dual heritage from father and mother alike, and adumbrating the time when artistic creativeness,—genius even—may be expected from women and men alike.” Adumbrating. What a tremendous word. What a shame we might still, nearly a century later, be not unreasonably said to be not much forrader in this respect.

One would not be entirely surprised to hear, then, that the woman expressing these views becomes, shortly afterwards, a suspect in the book’s titular death. Local copper Bond distrusts her from the off, suggesting that she is “one of those odd independent women who don’t cotton on to their own sex.” One can almost hear Lorac giggling as she puts those words in her character’s mouth, the sharp humour continuing as Bond reckons that “She’s just one of those queer secretive women who might make a bid for notoriety. Lots of brains and no conscience.” Perhaps he is the blueprint for Fleming’s Bond after all.

There is a neat little reference to Agatha Christie’s infamous disappearance in Bond’s continuing outburst too: “She’ll have a nervous breakdown, and then when she’s recovered she’ll announce that the whole thing was a loss of memory… and if the police had had any sense at all they’d have realised that she was ill to start with.” The manner in which Lorac accentuates the deeply rooted patriarchal idiocy by making this point through the voice of a stereotypically traditional male character is wickedly funny. One rather suspects that Lucy Worsley and Christie would wholeheartedly approve.

It’s no surprise that Band is such a stolid patrician, however, as this kind of character is required to offset the more urbane intelligence of The Yard Man, who equally instinctively trusts the suspect in question and believes the improbable version of events that suggests her innocence. Yet it is this very battle of beliefs that, for me, leads the book into the kind of murky landscape which the dreaded John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr might happily inhabit. Indeed it is this wearisome author who is sadly brought to mind through much of the rest of the book, as Bond and Warner argue the toss over a multitude of possible explanations for what is, in essence, a kind of locked room mystery. At this point in the early 1930s (‘Death of an Author’ was originally published in 1933) John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr was enormously popular of course (I understand that along with Christie and Ellery Queen, he was one of the ‘Big Three’ in China at the time), so it is understandable that other detective novelists might experiment with some of his structure in their own fiction. Lorac is much, much better than this though, and whilst the tedium of Bond and Warner exchanging theories is endured there are at least some flashes of the love of landscape that make many of Lorac’s other books so enjoyable. One sudden turn of the narrative, for example, takes us West, into the borderlands of England and Wales where the river Wye wends its way through steep sided valleys and where “away to the south the grand contour of the Yat Rock rears its craggy heights against the sky.” As in Lorac’s Robert Macdonald novels, this landscape is delicately sketched in a few assured lines, like Thomas Hennell watercolours.

Sadly though neither these lovely glimpses of the Wye valley nor the book’s denouement of a rather thrilling chase along the South coast from London to Brighton and then through Lewes, Newhaven and Seaford before finally landing in Eastbourne quite manage to lift things from the torpor of the heavy middle. Indeed, the description of “the long hideous rows of dreary grey houses which disfigure the downs immediately at the back of Brighton” being “soon left behind” might well stand as a metaphor for this entire book. Perhaps Lorac is subconsciously acknowledging the wearisome masculine battling of theories that she has modelled in the bulk of the book. Or then again, perhaps not so subconsciously, for some of the final words of the book come from the aforementioned female suspect who laughingly suggests to Bond and Warner that “Neither conceit nor ability is a purely masculine monopoly” and that “We’re a mixed lot, all of us!” That Lorac should have mixed experiments that explored the frightfully dull duelling of patriarchal ‘intelligences’ with her otherwise deft and neatly observed hand has surely left ‘Death of an Author’ as more of an oddity than a bona-fide ‘classic’. That she should have all but abandoned such mixing in her future novels is, however, to our enduring relief.

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