These Names Make Clues

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

These Names Make Clues
British Library Publishing
RRP: £8.99
Released: September 20 2021

The latest E C R Lorac title to join the British Library Crime Classics is this account of a murderous house party from 1937. Inspector Macdonald has been invited to join a ‘treasure hunt’ by a London publisher with an exciting crime list among his authors. Graham Coombe, realising that none of his guests know each other by sight, has issued them with literary name-tags (even this was new: it was introduced in the ‘30s at Cliveden by Lady Astor, though hers were real), so that not only must the contestants puzzle themselves from clue to clue about his mansion, but hopefully, too, at the end of the evening will identify who is really who. Identity comes too soon when the lights fuse and one guest is found dead: Macdonald’s police powers come immediately into play, which is fortunate, as the death on first appearance is natural.

Had I been there I would have still been in the living room trying to unravel the first clue, but educational standards were higher and wider than today, clearly, and Coombe’s guests (and therefore Macdonald’s suspects) were all over the house when the electricity blew. Possibly for motives bad or good some may have removed themselves consequently in the darkness to another location, so that when the light returns no one can be trusted not to have moved. Macdonald’s investigations make it clear that at least someone moved, while further investigations will reveal that it was not just humans that were re-located.

All this would be a problem in itself were it not that some of the authors had not only the pseudonyms given for the evening, but they had more than one identity outside. Trying to find out more about the victim takes the police to the office of a literary agent. As we arrive with Macdonald we might wonder why the clerical staff have been collected in the lobby: then, bang! Lorac throws in her next big surprise.

The story then divides, requiring reading in a number of ways. First, there is the revelation of the character of the first and second victim; secondly, the element of cypher and puzzle, which began as the party theme, continues in the identities of multiple characters; and thirdly, as would-be detectives begin haring off into the country, backstories begin to play a part. Notice the class element not mentioned: light returns when the household servants bring candles but the servants are rapidly excluded as suspects. Rather like Agatha Christie’s Cards On The Table, which had appeared the previous year, Macdonald breaks the suspects down into two groups of four: four thriller writers and four straight writers (Christie had two bridge parties).

Lorac may have been inspired by Cards On The Table to take a game as her theme but there is another element to the story, too. Some of the characters seem to be based on real people, suggesting that These Names Make Clues is a roman-a-clef. Andrew Gardien, who was given the evening identity of ‘Samuel Pepys’, writes detective stories involving clever machinery: he seems to be the real life John Dickson Carr (though Martin Edwards thinks John Rhode, and identifies Graham Coombes as William Collins). The more extraordinary character is Valerie ‘Jane Austen’ Woodstock, a historian, and a pretty obvious portrait of C. V. Wedgwood. Wedgwood had just made her name with her 1935 biography of Charles 1st’s minister, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, and one of the characters in These Names Make Clues is named Denzil ‘Thomas Traherne’ Strafford. Wedgwood seems to have been important enough to Lorac that she used the names of two characters to embrace her: Martin Edwards has said that Lorac’s autobiography exists; I suspect that it would make fascinating reading. Significant to Lorac or not, though, the derivation of names is another of the strands of mystery that must be unravelled before Macdonald can arrive at his solution.

In the background to everything is the prospect of war, the conflicting influences of fascism and communism, while four of the characters are declared pacifists. On the domestic side there is the nature of life as a single woman in London, while the ‘old school tie’ allows one character to borrow another’s car and chase into the night in the countryside. After everything, though, Macdonald finds there is no love in a cottage.

After every murder there is unhappiness, before it probably tragedy. The author’s job, as Lorac did it, was to make the two into something so gripping as These Names Make Clues


Book Reviews
About Us
Contact Us

Privacy Policy | Contact Shots Editor