Crossed Skis: An Alpine Mystery

Written by Carol Carnac

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

Crossed Skis: An Alpine Mystery
British Library
RRP: £8.99
Released: April 10 2019

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac is a welcome entry to the British Library’s Crime Classics series. Partly because anything by Carol Carnac (who was also E.C.R. Lorac) is welcome, but also because it has been one of her rarest titles, with dealers easily asking three figure prices for the original Collins Crime Club edition.

The inspiration for the plot seems to have been, as Martin Edwards says in his Introduction, a skiing trip that Carnac made with a group of friends in January 1951. Carnac predicates her plot on British Railways offering a cheaper rate for groups on the boat-train to the continent. No one has any money, so the chance to reduce one’s holiday costs would be too good to miss. What with illness, jobs and whatever, though, the group that sets off for Lech on the Austrian-Swiss border is not the group that originally planned the journey. No one knows everyone else in the party – anyone could get in who applied at the last minute to make up the numbers and hit that magic discount rate.

It is no wonder that people would want to get away: the winters after the war were dreadfully cold, bleak and fog-bound. The worst was yet to come – 1952, the year that Crossed Skis was published, was the year of the great smog of London. In a miserable boarding house near Southampton Row the police discover the top floor burning, and inside the attic bed-sit is a corpse. Carnac’s detective, Inspector Rivers, cleverly proves via the gas-meter that it is not that of the resident, and the question then becomes identifying the corpse and locating his murderer while the freezing fog aids the murderer’s escape.

It is not giving too much away that there is a link between the murderer and the skiers. It provides an opportunity for Rivers and sidekick to fly out to Austria where they discover that the party has been riven by missing banknotes and travellers cheques. And where a delay over a baggage claim on arrival is the clue to the identify of the murderer.

Part of the interest in Crossed Skis today is historical: the state of London five or more years after the war, but also the social mixing that still persisted. Mrs Stein’s boarding house is not far from Virginia Woolf’s bombed-out former home, an example of gentrification not yet having occurred, for instance. Meanwhile, the amounts the skiers agonize over in lost money is two or three pounds – yet these are professional people. If doctors and pilots had to worry over these amounts it is no wonder that no working class characters leave the country (that is another clue to the murderer). The third theme is the idea of the youthful amoral thrill-killer (which had appeared the year before in the film The Blue Lamp): this allows Carnac to tie the excitement of roof-top burglary to the excitement – not yet appreciated by all Britons – of down-hill skiing off-piste.

Carnac obviously liked this plot: she re-used it as E.C.R. Lorac in Murder In Vienna (1956) even down to the importance of exiting an attic onto a roof, and problems of identity in transit. She was, though, too professional to make the murderer the same suspect twice. That is why I am happy to thank British Library Crime Classics for another classic read.

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