Crook O’Lune by E.C.R. Lorac
This book is subtitled “A Lancashire Mystery”, which is highly suitable for a book which reveals in its setting, making the most of the distinctive and largely deserted Lune Valley. It is written with the affection, detail and knowledge that distinguishes writing by an author who really knows an area. This is the sometimes bleak, challenging land of hill country in which farming and life is tough, known only by locals in all its ways. It is set in Lancaster, but as far away from the industrial areas as it is possible. While this excellent novel was originally published in 1953, its recent reprint in the British Library Crime Classics series has not only made it available once more, but also meant the addition of a fascinating Introduction by Martin Edwards, which details his visit to the area to see the hostelry and much else which remains. He also details the overlap between the families and characters who have been the inspiration for the novel, as well as the local stories. It is a very enjoyable story that I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review.
The characters that people this story are also given far more depth than is often the case in a mystery novel. While most of the story is told from Lorac’s recurring character Chief Inspector Macdonald’s perspective, the first three chapters are given over to the newly arrived in the area, Gilbert Woolfall. He has just inherited Aikengill house on which most of the story is centred. He lives and works in a city, but like many others, is entranced by the house and area in which it is placed. He is beginning to make up his mind to move there, though with no view to actually farming the sheep which are the reason for people to be there, the only real produce of the hilly ground. Thus he encounters the local characters alongside the reader; the farmer who rents the land, the housekeeper who is finding it hard to move on, and especially the local priest who is a joyless, somewhat bitter man. The Rector, Mr Tupper, feels his grievances deeply and turns up at the house to express his annoyance that the late Thomas Woolfall, Gilbert’s uncle, did not leave a bequest to benefit the church or his stipend. It is patiently explained to him that Thomas had not only remodelled the house but also spent years going through old papers which set out that earlier Woolfalls had left historic bequests to ensure a clergy presence in the immediate area and a school. When Macdonald turns up to spend a holiday with his good friends the Hoggetts, he hears of the dispute among other local gossip. Macdonald is thinking of investing his own inheritance in a farm in the area when he has finished working for the police in London. He is inspired to help investigate a local mystery of sheep stealing, but it is when Aikengill house is set alight with fatal consequences that Macdonald really gets involved. Fortunately he is able to tackle the walks and climbs that are involved in the unforgiving landscape,as local loyalties and actions come under suspicion.
I really enjoyed this book, even though I am no farmer or rural dweller, but it is so vividly described that I could almost visualise the places mentioned. This book benefits not so much from research as experience of its setting, while the characters are well introduced and maintained in their variety and depth. The plot is clever and exciting, as figures that ought to be clear in such a deserted landscape appear unexpectedly. There is a good postwar atmosphere to the book, even though most of the inhabitants would not have had much direct experience of the War’s effects. It is a book that kept my attention throughout and I really enjoyed, and I would accordingly recommend this reprinted gem from a talented and entertaining author.