Shroud of Darkness, the fortieth book in the Robert Macdonald series of books by British author Edith Caroline Rivett, writing as E. C. R. Lorac was my third pick for Karen and Simon’s #1954Club.

With some elements that one typically encounters in quite a few Golden Age mysteries—the London Fog and a train journey—the book presents us with an engrossing and fairly complicated mystery and a well-drawn out and interesting set of characters put together with very good writing, which kept me reading all through.

The book opens with a train journey towards London, affected by the fog and progressing therefore, far slower than usual. In one compartment are travelling Sarah Dillion, secretary to a quite renowned psychiatrist in London, Richard a seemingly nice young man of around her age, whom she has been chatting with on the journey; a large and deep voiced ‘writer’ lady who is only engaged at her typewriter and takes no interest in any of her fellow travellers; a heavy middle-aged man, with the look of a businessman, snoozing over his newspaper; and finally another young man, whom Sarah with one look (and she is discerning, not simply acting on whim) pronounces ‘a bad lot’. Richard seems to Sarah a nice enough person, and they have even exchanged the books they’ve been reading, but at some point in the journey something seems to have come over him which has made him anxious and uncomfortable and this makes her uneasy as well (though she’d like to help). They finally arrive at London, each passenger heading off their own separate ways, into the thick fog.

A little later, the constable on duty at the station, Buller, finds a man brutally, in fact murderously attacked. But there is still life in him, and so a doctor is first summoned and then the victim is taken to hospital. The attacker has taken away everything the victim possessed, even emptying his pockets, so when Chief Inspector Macdonald is handed the case by the Paddington Superintendent, he has little to work on. [The reader can probably guess the victim, but it does take a little while before this is confirmed.] Step by step, the Inspector begins to track down the victim’s identity, for without it, there is no starting point to his case. While this involves hard work of course, Macdonald and his deputy Reeves are lucky in that Sarah Dillion and the business traveller, whose name turns out to be Weldon, are both very observant people; Sarah in particular, seems to have absorbed much working for Dr Grastang and can not only observe but read people well.

Beginning with Sarah’s information, Macdonald commences his investigation trying to trace the victim’s identity, and thereafter why and by whom he may have been attacked. But while Macdonald is making his investigations, other bodies also seem to be turning up—but are these connected with the attack at the railway station? Alongside, Macdonald bumps into a colleague who is looking into a wartime disappearance which he is seemingly fed up of since it came up inconclusive in the past. How does Macdonald get to the bottom of his case?

The writing and characters in the book drew me in right from the start. The story opens on the train on which we see all the passengers (the ones we are concerned with, that is) through Sarah Dillon’s eyes which gives one quite an insight into them all. And then of course, the scene shifts with the victim being found and the developments after that, before we move back to Sarah. I enjoyed watching how Macdonald uses the very detailed account that Sarah is able to give him to track down the place where the victim belonged and finally identify him. Once he learns about him, some threads are revealed which can lead to possible whys, relating to matters past and present. While the mystery is more police procedural than whodunit, in the sense that for the most part, we are following Macdonald and Reeves as they follow different threads and try to form a picture of what may have happened, there is also an element of the whodunit in the solution, and one I didn’t see coming at all—not until the denouement of sorts.

The characters were quite a standout for me as well; Sarah with her perception and exceptional observation skills, who shares a bedsit with a friend Elizabeth Maine; Mr Weldon, the solid businessman who also seems quite as observant; Dr Garstang who offers insights into the mystery through his knowledge of psychiatry; Brain Salcome, a farmer and friend of the victim who comes with Macdonald to London to help; Mrs Greville, the victim’s mother; Mrs Burrows his sister who bears him a grudge; and of course the police themselves. Each character, whether we meet them for a short while or they stay with us through the book is well drawn, and one feels like one really gets to know them as one reads. Only at one point later on, I found myself having forgotten one name, which took me a few minutes to figure out who was being referred to.   

It was interesting seeing the book bring up how psychiatry, being a relatively ‘new’ field of study at the time, is seen by some of the police with a fair bit of scepticism: some outrightly question whether the ‘record of mankind’ since the field’s development has shown any improvement justifying such study or whether indeed they have managed to reduce juvenile delinquency (valid concerns and ones that took me back to C. S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, where he raises a comparable question); others simply relying on their own plain sense, for the field makes no sense to them (but the method itself turns out to be time reaction!). The book does seem to have used psychiatry and psychology interchangeably in some places, but as I myself am always confusing the two, I didn’t even realise this until I sat down to write my review.  

I also really enjoyed Lorac’s writing: this para describing Dartmoor where Macdonald is making his search in particular, I thought was lovely:

There was no sunshine and the uniformly grey sky was pale, as though the clouds or overcast were very high up. It was a colourless morning: even the meadows and pastures of the valley looked wan, very different from the vibrant emerald of springtime, and as he mounted towards the moor the world became more and more a study in monochrome. The withered bents of the upland grassland were ashen, the occasional thorns etched black against the sky, the stone outcrops dark, the withered heather sepia.

The atmosphere in the book is in a sense dreary for we have the attack and the murders, and then the circumstances in which they occur—the fog itself in which no one, even the police can see where they’re going—literally and in the case as well—may be a little in the latter; there is also a mental fog of sorts involved—and both of these shroud the mystery in a darkness which Macdonald and his deputy must get beyond.

This was my very first book by ECR Lorac and I loved it—characters, plot, and surprises. I’m definitely looking forward to picking up more of her books soon.

Bookish coincidence: This has to be one of the most fun coincidences for me; at one point Sarah is looking at some golden age titles in her room and one of these just happened to be Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham, which was one I read for the #1936Club! Not only that, Flowers, too, is set amidst the London fog.

30 thoughts on “Book Review: Shroud of Darkness by E.C.R. Lorac #1954Club

  1. I’ve never read or even heard of Lorac before. Sounds quite an interesting mix of police procedure and exceptionally observant witnesses. That description of the Moors is beautiful. Reminds me of Miss Read.

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  2. I’m gobsmacked that this book comes up again…second tie in a week! My Young Gentleman Caller took a tote of ancient, need to be recycled paperbacks with him when he went back upstate to school & this was the one he was gushing over on Wednesday! He has a crush on Macdonald so I’m under instructions to get more of them for him.

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    1. This was my first one and I really loved it. I only came across her recently and looked up a couple of titles which have been waiting on my TBR since. This one really kept me reading all through. Hope you can find some more soon! I’m going to be looking too

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  3. Ooh this sounds excellent. I hadn’t heard of this before, I love a good train and some dense fog in a mystery novel. I have read one or two by E C R Lorac, a really good mystery writer.

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    1. Thank you 🙂 Yes, this was so good, I was surprised why she isn’t better known. I only came across her works in the last couple of years but they’ve been waiting on my TBR so far. Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll look up Checkmate to Murder for sure and also Two-Way Murder 🙂

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  4. I’m so glad you enjoyed your first experience of Lorac! I’ve read several of her books now, though not this one, and she’s become a firm favourite. I don’t understand why she had become forgotten – in my opinion she’s up there with the best of the vintage crime writers. I’m delighted that the BL has brought her back to public recognition and that so many of her books are easily available now. Hope you go on to enjoy many more!

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    1. Same here. The writing was so good it drew me in right from the start. I was wondering while reading why it was that I heard of her only so recently. I hope to. I have a couple waiting and will track down more as well

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  5. I discovered E C R Lorac a few years ago, as several of her books have been re-printed in the British Library Crime Classics. I think she’s a fantastic writer and her plots and characters are sufficiently varied and interesting to be great reads. The author also wrote under several others surnames, including Carnac.

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    1. I came across her may be a couple of years ago and though I did look up some books, I hadn’t yet gotten down to reading them. But am so glad I did now. You’re right, her writing is really good and it drew me in right from the start. Yes, I’ve seen listing for the Carol Carnac books. It only just struck me that Lorac is Carol backwards🙂

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  6. I think I have only read one Lorac – they are hard to find and I think my best bet is to persuade the library to purchase the ones that are back in print.

    I am a big Blyton fan too, although my favorite mystery series is the Adventure one. I read Mystery Island for one of Simon and Kaggsy’s Clubs a few years ago. And I like Malory Towers and St. Clare’s and the Naughtiest Girl series best of all.

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    1. If you read e-books, Canada’s fadedpage.com has about a dozen Loracs available to read.

      I grew up on (mostly) Blyton; like you I loved the Adventure books, but among the mysteries also the Findouters; St Clares and the Faraway Tree books, the mystery series (with Mike, Nora and Peggy), and loads of Bedtime books, Mr Meddle and such. I was glad my mom read a Secret Seven as part of her picks. I was hoping to read The Children at Green Meadows which wasn’t one I’d read as a child but ran short of time. I could have read it, but my review would have been too rushed.

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  7. A great review of what sounds like an excellent mystery! Like Karen, I’m a big fan of Lorac’s writing – her sense of place is particularly strong, a point you’ve illustrated quite beautifully with that passage about Dartmoor. I do hope the British Library decide to reissue this as I’d love to read it.

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    1. Thank you 🙂 I loved her writing as well, and I was so glad to finally read something by her. Wish she had been better known and I’d got to her earlier, but better late than never. And there so much of her writing to explore!

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