Friday, January 24, 2020

Murder in the Mill Race

Murder in the Mill-Race / E.C.R. Lorac
Naperville, IL: Poisoned Pen Press, 2019, c1952.
247 p.

I picked this book up from the library stacks for a couple of reasons: the cover is great, it's a British cozy by a woman, and it fit the blank 1952 spot in my Century of Books project! Sometimes this kind of random reading turns out very well, though, as it did here.

It's a small-village murder mystery with the perspective of an outsider: Dr. Raymond Ferens takes on the job as the new doctor in tiny Milham in the Moor alongside his sensible, modern minded wife. On the surface it's a charming place, but it has interesting residents -- they quickly get the measure of the business minded local aristocracy, and of Sister Monica, the head of the orphan school. Everyone says she is a saint... but she is murdered by drowning in the mill-race, shortly after the Ferens move to Milham in the Moor. Who, why, and how are the questions that the local constabulary can't winkle out of the villagers, who live by the creed "Never make trouble in the village."

So Scotland Yard is called in. Lorac's detective, Chief Inspector Macdonald, appears on the scene with a phlegmatic Cockney sergeant in tow. The two of them poke around and dig down beneath what's said to uncover what is not said. Lorac's view of humanity's darkest urges is clear. Everyone has secrets and is loath to bring them to light, whether their own or those of others. 

Sister Monica was not as angelic as she liked to portray herself; she had unexpected financial resources that didn't make sense on her tiny salary. And despite everyone's glowing endorsements, in truth, nobody really liked her, and were all aware that she was a poisonous gossip who could slander someone while pretending to defend them from accusations. 

So no-one is really that interested in getting a villager, who probably had good reason for killing Sister Monica, into serious trouble on her behalf. 

This is a tricky story with many potential villains, and a victim who is far from blameless. Chief Inspector Macdonald is a serious, thoughtful officer who slowly but inexorably pries the truth from the village, while going off on some fairly purple flights of sentimentality over the landscapes of Devon. It's a little odd but entertaining. 

The mystery was satisfyingly set up, not obvious, and makes sense in the end. But the strength of this book, for me, was the characterizations of all these fairly isolated people. They seem to have real quirks and personality, and this element really enriches the story. Definitely a good read; I'll have to look into a few more from this press to see if I can find another surprise gem. 


  1. I've read at least one Lorac, and some short stories I think. She's an entertaining writer, and I do like her detectives!

    1. I think I'll have to look for a few more. I enjoyed this one! And the edition was really nice as an object too.

  2. I love these British Library Crime Classics! :)


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