Murder in the Mill-Race (Inspector MacDonald 36) by ECR Lorac

Hidden secrets…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Milham in the Moor looks idyllic to Anne Ferens when she moves there with her doctor husband, Raymond. This isolated village in North Devon has its own social structure and minds its own business. But Anne soon begins to realise that perhaps all isn’t as it seems on the surface. Some months earlier, a young girl, Nancy Bilton, drowned in the mill-race (the stream that turns the paddles of a watermill, in case, like me, you don’t know what a mill-race is) and, although it was decided she’d committed suicide, there are all kinds of rumour and gossip. Nancy had been a maid at the local children’s home, Gramarye, working under the formidable Sister Monica. The more often people tell Anne that Sister Monica is a “wonderful” woman, the more Anne’s instinctive dislike of her grows. And then Sister Monica is found dead, drowned in the mill-race…

ECR Lorac is becoming a regular in the British Library’s Crime Classics series, and her revival is well deserved. This is another enjoyable entry in the Inspector MacDonald series. Lorac’s settings are always one of her strengths, and here she gives a very credible picture of a village that has, in a sense, turned in on itself, preferring to deal with its own problems rather than letting the authorities handle things. So the local police are getting nowhere with their investigation, and when MacDonald is sent in from Scotland Yard he will have to break down the resistance of the villagers to talking to outsiders. As newcomers, Anne and Raymond are in the position of being half-in and half-out of village life – accepted, but not yet fully. MacDonald hopes they’ll be able to give him a clearer picture of the village personalities but, as the new doctor, Raymond doesn’t want to alienate the people who will be his patients.

Sister Monica is very well drawn as someone who likes to dominate others. She may be swimming in a small pond but she’s the biggest fish and relishes her power. It doesn’t do to cross her – she has her own ways of paying back perceived slights, often by ensuring that scurrilous rumours are spread concerning the offending party, sometimes true, sometimes not. So despite the villagers’ avowal that she’s a wonderful woman, when she turns up dead there’s a surprising number of people who might have had a motive. And can it be coincidence that the two deaths should have happened at the same spot?

Chief Inspector MacDonald is accompanied by his Detective Inspector, Reeves, another competent and dedicated officer. They’ve obviously worked together often and know each other’s strengths, each falling naturally into the role that suits him best – MacDonald as the more formal interrogator of the upper echelons of village society, while Reeves uses his easy manner to try to elicit gossip from those lower down the social scale. There’s a bit of the usual snobbery in their relationship, with MacDonald as the more cultured and better educated of the two, but it’s not as glaring as in some Golden Age pairings, and overall they come over as having equal respect for each other.

The plot is interesting, and leads up to a nice denouement. But it takes second place really to the characterisation of Sister Monica and the depiction of the children’s home, both of which are excellent and cast some light on the lack of monitoring of such facilities back in those days (post-WW2) which allowed nasty people to abuse the power they were granted over both children and staff. (Don’t worry, though – no graphic abuse is heaped on the poor children in this one, so it’s not a harrowing read.)

Overall, another very good read from Lorac – I like that each of the ones I’ve read so far have had entirely different kinds of social settings. I’m hoping the BL continues to re-publish more of her work.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Book 19 of 20

34 thoughts on “Murder in the Mill-Race (Inspector MacDonald 36) by ECR Lorac

  1. I can just see that village, FIctionFan. As you say, Lorac was quite good at evoking place and local culture, and it sounds as though she did that here, too, which is great. The mystery sounds interesting, too. One thing I really like about Inspector MacDonald is that he’s a normal sort of person, and not hopelessly dysfunctional. I find that refreshing.

    • Yes, I like Inspector MacDonald too, and Reeves is a good sidekick in this one – if he was in the other ones I’ve read somehow he didn’t stand out so much in them, but he’s quite well developed in this one. Her settings are what make the books so good – I like that she seems to happily move MacDonald around the country, both urban and rural. It means each book, so far at least, has a different feel…

  2. The concept of a village community which has become somewhat insular and follows its own rules sounds well drawn, and reminds me a bit of one of Val McDermid’s stand alone novels I read around 10 years ago, the name of which unfortunately escapes me at this precise moment. It was a sexual predditor in that instance, but the villagers sorted him out in their own way and didn’t like the police getting involved. Hmm, that’s really going to annoy me now.
    Anyway, this seems like a great character driven crime novel what with the sinister sounding Sister Monica, so hopefully BL will release it on audable.

    • Hmm… can’t think of that McDermid off the top of my head but it’s possible I haven’t read it. I kinda went off her for a while with the later Tony Hill books and stopped reading her. It’s only with her recent Karen Pirie books that I’ve jumped back on. Villages seem often to be portrayed like that. Never having lived in one, I often wonder if it’s true or simply a fictional device. As a confirmed urbanite who loves the anonymity of a town or city, the idea of everyone knowing everyone else’s business gives me a bit of the chills. I hope they do release these as audiobooks – they actually seem perfect for that medium. If only Hugh Fraser could be tempted…

    • PS I noticed that some of the earlier Lorac books the BL has published have now appeared on Audible, including my personal favourites, Murder by Matchlight and Fire in the Thatch. Hopefully that means this one will join them at some point

      • Cheers, FF. I’ll check out these earlier ones if they have been produced by Audable now. I think that McDermid novel I was talking about was called the Place of Excecution, but don’t quote me on that.

  3. I’ve read some of Lorac’s books and enjoyed them, but I haven’t got round to this one yet. I like the way she describes the locations – easy to picture – and Sister Monica sounds a very interesting character, albeit annoying character.

    • It’s her locations I enjoy most, and each of the ones I’ve read – four of them I think – has had a quite different setting. Sister Monica made the perfect victim – I didn’t have to waste any time feeling sorry for her… 😉

  4. Nice to hear that graphic child abuse isn’t depicted here — thanks for telling us that. I find I struggle to read detailed depictions of abuse, whether it’s to people or animals (especially animals!!) This sounds like another interesting read — glad you enjoyed it!

    • That’s one of the reasons I’m enjoying vintage crime more than a lot of contemporary crime at the moment – they knew how to tell a good story without leaving all kinds of unpleasant images in the reader’s head! Haha – yes, me too – I can cope with horrors being done to fictional humans but not fictional animals!

  5. This sounds quite good and some of the comments above are encouraging, as well. Is it a series best read in order? I’ll have to do some research!

    • Oh, my…. if the source I checked was correct, there are 46 Inspector MacDonald mysteries! 😳 Maybe I’ll just pick one or two to try, this one included.

      • Hahaha – I know! I just discovered there were so many of them when I spotted this book is marked as number 36! If you’re looking to pick up a couple, then my favourites so far are Murder by Matchlight and Fire in the Thatch – they both got the full five stars! One is set in Lindon during the Blitz and the other is still wartime, but out in the rural world. I thought both settings were great and gave an excellent contrast… 😀

  6. I’ve seen another review of this recently and it was equally warm in its praise, so I’ll take the two as a recommendation! Incidentally my nerdy brain was drawn immediately to the name of the children’s home, Gramarye, which of course is a reference to fairyland, unusual for such an institution; so I wonder if Lorac intended this to have any significance, other than being sinister?

    • I wondered why she’d used that name too, and to be honest didn’t spot anything in the story to explain it. While Sister Monica is not a nice person, there’s no suggestion of witchcraft or supernatural stuff going on. Odd! However, it’s well worth reading – hope you enjoy it if you get to it sometime! 😀

    • The lack of graphic and harrowing descriptions is one of the main reasons I’m enjoying vintage crime more than a lot of contemporary stuff these days. Sometimes I think authors forget they’re supposed to be entertaining us to help us forget real life for a while!

    • That’s one of the reasons I love vintage crime – they didn’t go in for the grim and graphic quite so much! I’m late answering, but I hope you had a lovely weekend! 😀

  7. Another lovely cover! And I’ve never heard of a mill-race either.
    The nastiness of modern crime can be off putting, but I don’t recall a single one of your reviews which would put me off reading these because of graphic details. Also, everyone gets on with what comes next instead of wallowing in emotion.

    • I had to look up mill-race – a sign of changing times maybe! That’s exactly what I like about vintage crime – it avoids the three Gs – graphic, grim and grief-stricken! Much more fun to read!

  8. Lorac is definitely a name that is starting to sound more familiar to me-thanks to you! I’m relieved this book doesn’t focus too much on the abuse of children, because we all know it was happening but I really don’t like to be reminded of it. Now, a nun who is murdered when she had it coming…that’s a different story! haha

    • She really is too good to have been allowed to become “forgotten” – I’m so glad the British Library have resurrected her! Hahaha – yes, I wasn’t sorry that Sister Monica turned out to be the victim… well deserved! 😉

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