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.