Murder In The Mill-Race

Written by E C R Lorac

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Murder In The Mill-Race
British Library Publishing
RRP: £8.99
Released: May 10 2019

E C R Lorac must have had a bad war. Come 1945, and then for almost a decade afterwards her characters all wanted to escape from London and travel as far away as they could manage. Some went to the wilds of Lunedale in Lancashire, while others went to start new lives in the west country. Murder in the Mill-Race is one of the later, as a young doctor and his wife arrive in Milham in the Moor, a village in which he has bought the retiring doctor’s practice.

The National Health Service had been created four years before this book was first published, but it scarcely gets a mention, and the underlying principle seems to be the one that had applied to GPs for the previous hundred years: find a practice with no rivals nearby. And so Dr Ferens arrives in an isolated village where one or two figures can dominate and abuse their neighbours, where gossip can boil-over, and where libels can seethe. The village has a lord of the manor with a title, and it also houses a children’s home overseen by a warden, the witch-like Sister Monica, who still manages to be described as a “saint” by her staff and the villagers alike.

The other new arrival in the village, the estate manager, will quickly discover suggestions that he is not having an affair with the new doctor’s wife, which in such a village, of course, is a suggestion that he is. This is how the village has lived for a decade or more. Then Sister Monica is found to have slipped and fallen in the Mill Race one dark night - a verdict of drowning might be possible but the local police sergeant is strong enough to demand a full investigation – a rare figure who can resist the social pressures to let life go on as before. A post mortem will reveal that Sister Monica might have drowned, but a blow on the head might have helped her enter the water.

In the last third of the book Lorac’s Chief Inspector Macdonald produces more – and even more shocking – results from the pathologist. Lorac did this – the evidence is sexual – in several of her post-war works, and it is always both startling and powerful. That is in addition to how assets can be hidden.

A village cut-off from modern society, in which the post-mistress handles every letter in and out, in which single figures are near all-powerful, and their power used for unpleasant self-satisfaction: surely all that is behind us? And the means and motives some victims might have to adopt – death of their abuser – isn’t all that behind us, too? You might think so, particularly half way through the book when you read “’She’d have made enough noise to wake your dog and the dog would have barked.’ ‘The dog didn’t bark,’ said Venner.”

Read to the end of Murder in the Mill-Race, however, and you might agree with me that is not an old-fashioned mystery: I have read a paradigm of a criminal sense of mind that persists to today.

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