Carol Carnac is one of the pseudonyms used by Edith Caroline Rivett, who also wrote mysteries as ECR Lorac. Crossed Skis was first published in 1951 and is being republished by the British Library Crime Classics imprint.
A party of travellers is escaping the post-war dreariness of London smogs for a skiing trip in Austria. As they arrive, the police back in London discover a body, burnt beyond recognition, in a boarding house. An observant police officer sees something which leads the investigating detectives to link the death to the skiing party. The novel then follows the two strands – the investigation in London and the skiiers in Austria – until they are brought together to resolve the crime.
Crossed Skis offers fascinating insights into the period. The group is made up of professional, single men and women. They have independence and money but there are also hints that some of them survived dark times during war service. There is a real sense of them breaking free of the constraints of rationing and shortages, heading for open spaces. They are a social group whose lives are opening up to opportunity and a freedom that was curtailed by the war.
I also enjoyed the detail about their lives – the slang used by the younger characters, the residential clubs where many of the women live, the descriptions of the life of the farmers and others who live in the Austrian resort.
By contrast there is the constrained world of Mrs Stein, the owner of the boarding house where the body is discovered. Mrs Stein is hard-working and downtrodden, trying to make a living and do the right thing by the authorities, while her wayward son Syd is undermining her at every turn.
Introducing 16 characters on the ski trip is quite a risk. Carnac had been on a similar trip herself (she dedicated the book to her fellow travellers). It seems she wanted to recreate the experience and the characters she travelled with, but a tighter cast might have made for an easier read. I found myself having to check back a few times to remember who was who (reading on a Kindle would have made this easier). However only a few of the 16 play a significant role in the story so it wasn’t too big a problem. You also have two detectives who are prominent in the investigation – Detective Inspector Brook and his senior officer Chief Inspector Rivers and it’s not clear who is the protagonist.
Carnac lays plenty of clues and false trails even before the murder has been introduced. We soon learn that the group travelling to Austria is a loose association of friends, acquaintances and friends of friends, so there are a few people who aren’t known to any other member of the group.
Before the party have even arrived at their destination there are people joking about how they don’t resemble their passport photo, accents that don’t match their professed nationality, and a conversation about how easy it would be to deceive someone with a false biography. There are hints of a possible Cold War connection as Austria remains occupied by the Allies and divided into four zones at that period, a reminder that the sense of freedom enjoyed by the ski party is set against a backdrop of occupation.
Crossed Skis doesn’t bear too close scrutiny as a mystery. The detectives make early intuitive leaps which then set them off in a particular direction. Luckily for them, it goes like clockwork, but contemporary readers might expect more reversals, more complexity and ambiguity, more character flaws in the detectives.
However, at a time when the walls are closing in, it’s quite a fun piece of escapism – travel, adventure, vast, stunning landscapes and a reassuringly reliable set of authority figures to take you by the hand and guide you to a clear and just conclusion.
Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of a novel by the same author set in Devon, Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac