A MOST EXTRAORDINARY THING:
THE WORKS OF EDITH CAROLINE RIVETT
To be honest, my expectations were not very high. The name E.C.R. Lorac was vaguely familiar. One of those Golden Age mystery writers. Stately country house, millionaires with ancient titles, corpse turns up, not-too-bright local constable blunders and blusters about, clever inspector from Scotland Yard enters the case, interminable conversation, multiple theories of murder, and final resolution.
The greatest author in this school of writing was unquestionably Agatha Christie (1890-1976). She built a huge audience of devoted readers, and most of her works remain in print to this day, treasured for the most part by elder aficionados who bask in the sunny recollection of the adventures that thrilled them many decades ago.
How many of those books were written in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, mainly in by English authors, although a few Americans joined the party, most notably the early Ellery Queen and S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright)? And of course there was the great John Dickson Carr. Although born in the United States, Carr (aka Carter Dickson) spent at least half his life in England and became one of the greatest exponents of the English school of detective story writing.
But eventually the American hardboiled school created a reverse invasion that had dozens of British writers imitating the Americans. The best of these was René Lodge Brabazon Raymond, who wrote under a variety of pseudonyms, the best known being James Hadley Chase, under which name he wrote the dazzling No Orchids for Miss Blandish.
But Edith Caroline Rivett (1884-1959) was already well established by this time. She stuck with the traditional forms and formulas, and she did them remarkably well. She wrote as both E.C.R. Lorac and Carol Carnac. Under these two names she produced some approximately seventy novels (sources vary as to the exact number) of which at least twenty feature Inspector Macdonald.
And, yes, he’s the bright detective from Scotland Yard.
Case in the Clinic was originally published in 1941. Edith Caroline Rivett had introduced Inspector Macdonald in her first novel, The Murder in the Burrows, published in 1931. Rivett was something of a later bloomer; she was forty-seven years old when she published her first novel. But once she got started there was no stopping her. Her final two novels appeared in 1959, the year of her death.
Scotland Yard Inspector Macdonald was her favorite protagonist, and by the time she wrote Case in the Clinic she was a thoroughly seasoned mystery novelist and Macdonald was as comfortable to her—and surely to her readers—as an old shoe or a battered hat or a favorite book which one has read many times and refuses ever to part with.
The author adds a number of intriguing factors to the familiar formula. One is a touch of the supernatural. You’ll find séances in a lot of these books, but Lorac uses the theme in a distinctive way. There’s also the question of how the murder was committed. Some modern readers claim to have spotted the gimmick at once, and I stand in awe of them because I didn’t catch on until Lorac tipped her hand near the end of the novel.
A major drawback of the traditional English mystery is the flatness of the characters. The term often applied is “two-dimensional.” Film versions of these stories could be populated by actors from central casting.
Not so with Lorac. Her characters—many of them, at least—project a living, breathing presence across the printed page. Consider this brief excerpt from Case in the Clinic:
Jenkins was getting stout now, and distinctly bald—he was well over fifty, but he moved lightly and easily, with a swiftness surprising in a man of his weight, and his muscular powers had never been greater, though he said sadly that his wind wasn’t what it was when he did his morning exercises. Jenkins was a married man, with a wife as plump and sensible as himself, and a son who had just achieved a degree in engineering from Glasgow University. Jenkins was always telling Macdonald to get married before he got “too set in his ways”—advice to which Macdonald responded with a cheerful grin and the retort that it takes all sorts to make a world, and he didn’t want the additional worry of what would happen to his widow when he was out on some wildcat job when anything might happen.
That’s not standard, classic “detective story” writing. That’s creating characters that emerge from the page and find a place for themselves in the reader’s mind and heart. I would dearly love to meet Jenkins’ wife, “as plump and sensible as himself.” Lorac doesn’t tell us her name and never brings her onstage, but one gets a picture and feels as if he knows this woman, who is utterly believable and hugely likeable on the basis of a mere six word description.
Case in the Clinic was likely written at least two years before its publication in 1941, as no mention is made of World War Two. The Battle of Britain was raging. The RAF countered Luftwaffe bombing raids for months on end as British Spitfires engaged in dogfights with Messerschmitt 109s sent to escort Heinkel bombers.
At one point in Case in the Clinic, two men sit down for a chat and discuss their possible topic of conversation. They agree not to address “the world situation”—presumably the war—and that one brief scene is the only indication in the book that anything is taking place that might possibly interrupt the bucolic tranquility of the English countryside.
The author stirs ingredients into Case in the Clinic with consummate skill. A major portion of traditional murder mystery, a hint of the supernatural, a mix of characters, some likeable, some unpleasant, some quite puzzling, some slight of hand involving a too-obvious suspect (or several such), to produce a delicious stew.
This is an author unjustly forgotten.
Edith Caroline Rivett deserves a place, if not quite on a par with Dame Christie, then certainly at her honored right hand.
—Richard A. Lupoff