Murder in the Mill-Race, first published in 1952, is reissued as a British Library Crime Classic. It struck me as both a fascinating piece of social history and a fable for our times.
Dr Raymond Ferens and his wife Anne are moving to an Exmoor village. Raymond is a GP, committed to both his patients and his interest in researching asthma.
They view the village and its traditions with benign bewilderment and enjoy negotiating with Lady Ridding, whose family rules the village, for their accommodation – and making sure they get a good deal.
One aspect of the place leaves them less amused – they learn about a children’s home run by the self-styled ‘Sister Monica’ who constrains her wards with a rigid regime. Lady Ridding and the other members of the village elite all collude. Anne’s first meeting with Sister Monica is almost gothic, as she feels a wave of unease just at the sight of her giant shadow falling across the hall. Her coldness to the children who accompany her leaves Anne deeply uncomfortable, as does the way she appears to hold the whole village in her sway.
Then Sister Monica is apparently murdered, having either fallen or been pushed from a bridge into the river near the mill. A detective from a neighbouring village attempts to piece together the events that led to her death but meets with a wall of silence. It is decided to call in Chief Inspector Macdonald from Scotland Yard to investigate.
Raymond and Macdonald are both determined to overturn the village mythology which gives Sister Monica her strange power. Theirs is a new way of looking at the world, forged by the social upheaval of the Second World War. They are men who owe their positions to their talents and education, not social status or deference to outdated institutions. Raymond particularly dislikes the fact that the dead woman calls herself ‘Sister’ giving herself both a religious and medical status with the villagers to which she is not entitled.
Sister Monica showed a clever ability to undermine anyone who opposed her, through rumour and innuendo, and it seems no one was willing to challenge her. Macdonald manages to get answers from people precisely because he refuses to accept their underlying assumptions about what is true – or what they can admit. He also makes a point of interviewing Lady Ridding last rather than first, as her status would dictate. He is laying down a clear marker that he will not be bound by social conventions but will go where the evidence takes him.
It is his fresh eye, and the determination of Raymond to follow evidence, not mythology, that lead them together to solve the case (although the mystery is in a way the least interesting thing about this book and I did have some questions about the ending).
The author creates a haunting atmosphere around the village, Sister Monica and the children’s home. She cleverly both determines to debunk the mythology and draws the reader into it. There is also the paradox that the very confidence of the outsiders that they know better is a belief held as passionately as those of the villagers.
The Ferens are interesting because they are shown as a couple who act in partnership. Raymond won’t take the job until he is assured that Anne will be happy to move to the village. They discuss their ideas and feelings about the community freely. But this freedom is tempered by the restraint. It is mentioned in passing that the move to Devon was partly a response to health problems Raymond suffers as a result of being a prisoner of war in Japan — and never referred to again.
At the end of the book Raymond, Anne and Macdonald engage in a philosophical discussion about the importance of evidence and reason in solving the case, versus intuition and instinct. Intuition is useful, they conclude, but needs to be backed up by careful examination of the facts. Experts, eh?
I received a copy of Murder in the Mill-Race from the publisher.
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