Doctor Raymond Ferens, his health ruined by his wartime experiences, and his wife Anne move to Milham in the Moor, an isolated village high on Exmoor. It seems idyllic, but soon they find themselves caught up in a murder mystery when Sister Monica, warden of the local children’s home, is found drowned in the mill stream. Villagers, who generally regard Sister Monica as ‘a wonder’ claim she must have come over dizzy and fallen off the bridge. But Sgt Peel (from the nearby town of Milham Prior) is not so sure. He is suspicious because there has been another unexplained drowning (of a maid from the children’s home) in the same place. And there are puzzling aspects to the case. So Scotland Yard is drafted in to help, in the shape of Chief Inspector Macdonald and Detective Inspector Reeves.
Murder at the Mill-Race: A Devon Mystery, by ECR Lorac, is one of those lovely British Library Crime Classics, with an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards, who edits the series, and has a very nice blog here. I’d never been a huge fan of crime fiction until I discovered these BLCC ‘Golden Age’ murder mysteries, and I think I’ve loved all the ones I’ve read. There’s not too much blood and gore, which is what puts me off many modern crime novels, which sometimes seem almost to be a celebration of violence. These bygone authors (who were immensely popular in their day), produced well crafted tales, with believable characters, and their detectives (policemen as well as amateur sleuths) rely on their brains (rather than intuition) to unravel the clues, which is something I always appreciate. And their portrayal of the life and times they write about is nearly always brilliant – Golden Age crime writers are really good on domestic detail the social set-up, and the way people respond to events, and that’s especially true in this book.
Anyway, I digress. Our Scotland Yard detectives quickly discover that Sister Monica (or Miss Monica Emily Torrington, as she should really be known) was neither as wonderful nor as well-liked as people would have them believe. A post mortem reveals traces of alcohol in her blood, yet she was a strict tee-totaller, and her secret savings amount to far more than her meagre wage – so where does the money come from? But no-one is willing to admit any fault in Sister Monica. And if they have their suspicions about the identity of the killer and the reason for the murder they’re not admitting that either. Lorac tells us:
“Never make trouble in the village,” is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbour’s sins and shortcomings, but you should never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.”
Chief Inspector Macdonald and Detective Inspector Reeves pursue their inquiries kindly, but firmly, and are quite prepared to undertake practical investigations to prove their suspicions – unwittingly aided by Dr Ferens and land agent John Sanderson, who carry out their own experiment in a bid to discover what really happened.
Gradually a clearer picture emerges of Miss Torrington, who adopted the title ‘Sister’, along with an air of religious humility, and a ‘long dark cloak and veil which hospital nurses had worn as uniform in the early nineteen hundreds’. A capable nurse, she managed the children’s home efficiently and economically for almost 30 years, and while the youngsters in her care were not loved, they were not ill-treated. But by the time Raymond Ferens and his wife meet her she is ‘ageing, domineering, narrow-minded’ and has been in the job too long. Miss Braithwaite, one of the few people to speak out against Sister Monica, tells the police:
“She was one of those women who cover a mean and assertive mind with a cloak of humility, and there was something abnormal about her, almost pathological. Also, she was malicious gossip, an eavesdropper and a raker-up of other people’s secrets.”
There’s a host of believable characters, and I like the way you get a glimpse of their personalities, as well as a descriptions of their physical appearance, each of them a power within their own own sphere, like Mrs Yeo who runs the Post Office, the village shop, the WI, the Mothers’ Union, and all the other ‘worthy efforts’. But the social niceties of the village hierarchy must always be observed – it would take a brave person to treat Lady Ridding as a social equal! On the whole I rather like Lady Ridding, whose aristocratic charm hides a shrewd business brain, and I love the way the London detectives remain polite, but steadfastly refuse to be influenced by her social standing! However, she is chairman of the committee which runs the children’s home, and I couldn’t quite understand why she closed her eyes to Sister Monica’s oddities.
There is quite a bit of dialect in this novel, which I don’t always like, but here it somehow rings true, isn’t patronising, and seems in keeping – as I was reading I could hear that lovely slow, soft-spoken Devonshire burr. And I liked the way Milham in the Moor ‘ten miles from anywhere and nothing but the moor beyond, all the way to sea’ was as much a character as the people – there are some lovely descriptions of the landscape, and I can see how its isolation could make villagers band together against outsiders.
Overall I really enjoyed this, and I didn’t guess who the killer was – but then, as I’ve said before, I very rarely do. My main quibble is that we kept being told that some women go a bit peculiar as they get older, especially when they’ve been in a position of power for a long time, and they become very dominating, and Sister Monica is one of these. She was certainly very unpleasant, and the more we found out about her, the more unpleasant she became, and I know this was published in 1952, and you have to put things in perspective, but it’s a spurious argument.
Why is it that women in positions of authority, like hospital matrons, headmistresses, chairwomen of committees and so on, are so frequently portrayed as power-crazed, domineering harpies, who should be retired, or removed from their positions? But men’s right to abuse their position, or hang on to power when their abilities are no longer up to it is rarely questioned. Sorry about the rant. I could go on about this for a lot longer, but it didn’t actually spoil my enjoyment of the book – I just felt I had to say something!