Post After Post-Mortem: An Oxfordshire Mystery

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

Post After Post-Mortem: An Oxfordshire Mystery
British Library Publishing
RRP: £8.99
Released: February 10 2022

Things appeared to be different after the First World War, and forty years after Tolstoy had written ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ in the first sentence of Anna Karenina.

There is no dissension among the brothers and sisters in Swallows and Amazons, the children in National Velvet are described as being alike as ‘golden greyhounds’. When H E Bates began his Larkin series in the mid-fifties things were the same. The Surray family, whose home is near Oxford seem no different in E C R Lorac’s Post After Post-Mortem. The year is 1935, and the youngest of the Surray children, Naomi, has just completed the family tradition of academic success: now she is at a domestic conclave to consider what to do next. The options available to her can be guessed from the family lunch: ‘cold salmon and the lobsert salad, the quails in aspic and the pigeon pie’ – the world is full of potential. And even though that meal carries with it a thousand possible deaths by botulism, that is not how mortality is to strike the family.

There must be many a person who wishes to sleep and never to wake.  Whether Ruth Surray had ever gone to sleep like that we shall never know, but when her mother on going to wake her found Ruth dead, the pills which gave her sleep were present at her bedside. Too many pills, though, were missing to think that she had intended to wake. It seemed that Ruth had longed for the Big Sleep, and that is what the inquest found. Until, that is, a letter written by Ruth is delivered to her brother delayed by its address: it had been written so late on Ruth’s last night, and its tone was so bright, that it was clear she had not intended to die. How then did it happen? Lorac’s Chief Inspector Macdonald begins to investigate.

Who was in the house? Who could have been let into the house? Who was showing an interest in the sisters? Who was being spurned in favour of another? Unlike some of Lorac’s books which feature wide open spaces, although this one features at least one chase along an Oxfordshire Lane and another by rail to Glasgow, Post After Post-Mortem is essentially claustrophobic. In one case not even the house but just one room suffers arson (though it is a locked-room to add to the mystery). Instead, in the enclosed spaces, who heard whispering and conversation, or even who heard but could not understand human voices, adds to the tautening of the troubled atmosphere.

The final revelation of the killer takes us back to families, and shows that even while Lorac has presented the Surrays as having found the perfect way to live, their attitudes outside the family have cut them off from true human feeling. ‘Whichever way you look at it, [the murderer] hadn’t had a fair deal’, Macdonald explains in the last chapter: he had no need to say that before Ruth Surray died someone else had had an even less fair deal. If it is about anything then Post After Post-Mortem may be Lorac’s own novel about ‘Wild Justice’.

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