Friday, 2 December 2016
Forgotten Book - Policemen in the Precinct
E.C.R. Lorac published Policeman in the Precinct,,my Forgotten Book for today, in 1949. It's an enjoyable read, and the setting is the precinct of Paulborough Abbey, a fictitious place located somewhere around the Cotswolds. The Abbey and its environs are well realised, suggesting a real life model, though I'm not quite sure what the "original", if there is one, might be. Lorac wanted to disguise the place, perhaps because she has harsh things to say about the gossipy behaviour of the locals, and the selfish, high-handed attitudes of the Dean.
In fact, I found her portrayal of the small world of the Abbey precinct even more interesting than the whodunit puzzle. In saying this, I must add that the "mystery" element of the story is certainly not weak or flimsy. No fewer than four suspicious deaths (not all of them necessarily involving murder) take place, and one of them reminded me of a similar crime in Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly, published seven years later. Suspicion switches around a small (perhaps too small?) cast of suspects before Chief Inspector Macdonald figures out the truth.
The key death is that of a malicious gossip called Mrs Mayden. Although this is not a "poison pen letter" story, the point is made that the spreading of unkind rumours about Paulborough people by word of mouth is in the same vein as an outbreak of spiteful letters. Mrs Mayden was a religious fanatic, and Lorac clearly has no time for such folk, or for people who enjoy backbiting.
Macdonald voices sentiments which surely express Lorac's own views: "I''m probably incapable of judging the high ecclesiastic fairly. I'm a Protestant by nature, and priestly arrogance gets all my hackles up".At one point he advocates rehousing the inhabitants of the precincts in the poorest cottages in town:"They might then find so much to do that they might mend their ways of taking excessive interest in their neighbours' visitors.."
Macdonald's humane outlook on life is emphasised, and we also learn a bit about his background. He describes himself as a "London Scot", whose father, a journalist, came from Inverness to London. Macdonald served in the London Scottish during the war, before going up to Oxford, but his father's death during his first year as a student meant that he had to earn a living, prompting a decision to join the Metropolitan Police. He's a bachelor whose batman used to do his chores, before both the batman and his home were bombed out of existence in 1941. Macdonald moved to a modern block of flats, still facing the river, but finds it "a poor way of living, and London seems to have altered such a lot since..I was a boy". This story is a good one, and Macdonald is a very likeable character.