Devon: scene of two crimes

The drought has turned fields yellow in Devon, so that with the dark hedge lines and trees in full leaf the landscape resembles those railway posters, and the covers of murder mysteries.

I read two such novels with A DEVON MYSTERY writ large on their covers. They have these things in common:

  • They are both set in Devon, but Devon in the past – in the 1930s and the 1950s.
  • The murder victims are both very unpleasant
  • The cases are solved by the writers’ favourite detectives.
  • They have been reprinted in the British Library Crime Classic series, with their familiar railway poster covers – one is actually from Somerset.

I’m not a great reader of crime classics and chose these because they featured Devon where I live. But as I want my friends and neighbours to live peaceably in Devon, I won’t be reading any more for a while.

Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac (1952)

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson-Carr (1942)

Murder in the Mill-Race 

This Devon mystery is set in a village where everyone closes ranks to protect the murderer. The horrible Sister Monica who runs the local children’s home, is found dead in the village stream, but no one is saying anything helpful about it. Dr Farens and his wife are newly arrived in the village and at the start of the novel we follow their amateur explorations and discussions of the event. 

Later Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Macdonald is brought in to solve the case, together with Detective Inspector Reeves. In the process of their enquiries Sister Monica is found to be neither a religious nor a nursing sister, and that over many years she has been controlling everyone through knowing their secrets, spreading stories and extorting money. Everyone hated her, and yet the villagers will not break their silence about the identity of the culprit and are not averse to providing a false clue or two. Of course, the Scotland Yard team crack the case in the end.

The village I live in bears no resemblance to Milham on the Moor. We have no mill, no children’s home, no lady of the manor ruling over everyone, and no country doctor’s practice (but we do have a modern Health Centre). I have lived here for nine years, and as far as I know there has been no murder here in that time. The village does however have a strong connection to The Hound of the Baskervilles, but that is another matter.

ECR Lorac was the pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958) who was a prolific writer of crime fiction from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac, first published in 1952. British Library Crime Classics series edition published in 2019. 252pp

The Seat of the Scornful

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. [Psalm 1]

We meet a rather self-satisfied High Court judge, Mr Justice Ireton, as he sentences a man to death for the murder of his wife. He appears to enjoy a game of cat-and-mouse for he acknowledges to his chess-playing friend Dr Fell, that the man will have his sentence reduced on his recommendation at a later date. He has no sympathy for criminals. Dr Fell asks this rather unpleasant man, 

‘Can’t you ever see yourself in the position of the man in the dock?’ (32)

Drawing on the game of chess he has just won the judge explains why he behaves as he does when sentencing.

‘It consists in letting your opponent think he‘s perfectly safe, winning hands down and then catching him in a corner. You would probably call it the cat-and-mouse gambit’ (34)

He sits foursquare in the seat of the scornful. Then Judge Ireton is found in his home with a revolver and a dead man on the carpet in front of him. And on this occasion it looks like he is guilty. The dead man is a charming rogue, but one with a highly developed desire for vengeance. He is also described by a character as an Eye-talian, which is obnoxious, but in 1942, when the novel was published, Britain and the US was at war with Italy.

The setting is the coast of Devon, in easy reach of Tiverton and some fictional holiday spots. The local Assizes having finished, the judge has rented a bungalow here for the summer, which is somewhat isolated from the nearest village. It is here that the murder victim is found. The isolated road, the small town where people are known, the local resort are the backdrop to the crime.

An intricate plot involves the judge’s daughter – it is her fiancé who is found dead – the judge’s mentee a barrister called Fred Barlow, a young woman in love with him and the good doctor who is helping Inspector Graham to solve the case. There is a revolver, sand in the wrong place, a disappearing tramp, a stuffed moose’s head and a pool party. Dr Fell sets up a cat and mouse game and entraps the murderer.

The author was an American, married to an English woman and he spent much of his life in Britain. Martin Edwards, in his Introduction, suggests that this crime novel explores the moral aspects of murder: can murder ever be justified? Is weakness an excuse for crime? It is not your usual locked room mystery.

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson-Carr first published in 1942 and reissued in the British Library Crime Classics series in 2022. 236pp

Related Post

KaggsysBookishRamblings reviewed this earlier this month. She is full of praises for the intricate plot and is particularly impressed by the well-developed characterisation, which contrasts with many crime novels.

8 Comments

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8 Responses to Devon: scene of two crimes

  1. Thanks for linking to my post Caroline! I thought that the Carr was a particularly interesting entry in the BL series – most enjoyable!

  2. I think I’d be tempted by both of these for days when the brain needs some rest from the more literary, issues based reading.

  3. Jennifer

    I’ve read The Hogs Back Mystery, which is set around the long ridge which runs from Farnham to Guildford. I liked recognising the places around where the disappearances take place. I was especially taken with the idea of the police inspector having to cycle between the suspects houses in the Surrey Hills to the police stations in Farnham and Guildford. Things moved slowly in those days. What also struck me was that the plot was like a cheese game or a logic puzzle. Very little thought was given to the psychology of the perpetrator of the crime. People’s actions and motivations were only used as devices to move the plot along. There was really no interest in them as individuals.

    • Caroline

      There’s a great scene in The Mill-Race where the Inspector and his sidekick go for a drive one pleasant evening to a spot where you can see 360 degrees, and even see Lundy Island. Nothing about that scene contributes to the solving of the mystery, but it reminded me why I live in Devon.
      Did you mean CHESS game?
      I agree about the lack of characterisation, at least for the Lorac mystery, and it’s why I rarely read them. The Seat of Scorn was different.
      Caroline xx

  4. Jennifer

    Yes. I did mean chess 😂

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