These Names Make Clues by E.C.R. Lorac
A clever and deceptively complex book from 1937, this book has been rescued from obscurity by Martin Edwards and the British Library in their Crime Classics series. When originally published in 1937 by the writer Edith Caroline Rivett it seemed to fit in well with the Golden Age of Detection in that it featured a treasure hunt in which a mixture of authors and one detective had to solve a series of puzzles of literary and other clues. This novel idea meant that the story hinged on the idea of experts gathered in a large house who all had experience of writing mysteries or at least carrying out solid literary research to compile a coherent narrative. When an unexplained death takes place in the house during the event there ought to be plenty of theories about what really happened, especially as the brother and sister hosts are quick thinking and mainly practical people. As befits a woman writer there is a good split of female and male protagonists, which I think greatly adds to the careful blend of characters and clues. As usual in this excellent reprint series, Martin Edwards introduces the author, the context of the book and points out how some of the characters may have resembled Lorac’s fellow Detection Club members, one hopes to their amusement. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this entertaining addition to the British Library Crime Classics series.
The novel is largely navigated through the point of view of Chief Inspector Macdonald as he receives an invitation to attend a Treasure Hunt from publisher Graham Coombe and his sister Susan. He is unsure about attending an entertainment event when he is an actual detective at Scotland Yard, but is assured that everyone will be present under a pseudonym so it will be far from clear who is author and who is actual detective. His friend encourages him to attend, and certainly he finds much to intrigue him when he arrives at the designated address. Each thriller writer and “Straight” author has been given a name under which they will act for the evening, which I found a really entertaining as Lorac uses them for the first part of the book to delineate the characters under their alias, so phrases like “Jane Austen who completed her cipher a split second before Laurence Sterne and Izaak Walton”. Eventually there is a revelation of who is who, but that is when the dire necessity of a full investigation happens. For amid all the puzzle solving and cipher breaking going on using reference and other books as well as clues scattered throughout the house, all the lights go out. The extremely practical Susan soon provides candles, but not before there is a lot of bumping into people in the dark and various people moving about the house in a confusing manner. That confusion becomes significant when the body of a participant is discovered in the telephone room, and there is some confusion as to whether it is a natural, if sudden, death. Macdonald’s presence is soon relevant when there are hints of suspicious activity in the room which throws doubt on the certainty of natural causes, and there soon develops a complex case of suspicion, motives and further events.
My favourite character in the novel is undoubtedly Susan, as she takes charge of the situation with her clear view of the circumstances and people involved. Overall I thoroughly recommend this book for its cleverly constructed plot, the characters with their pseudonyms, and the depiction of literary London of the time with its interconnections and links. It is a worthy addition to the series.