- By E.C.R. Lorac
- First published: UK: Collins, 1950; US: Doubleday, 1951
Meriel’s a fair dinkum sheila (even if she is a ranga), but her rellies are whingeing pommy bastards. They reckon they’re pretty schmick, and think the girl from Oz’s a real bogan, and her husband’s a boofhead. They want them to bugger off back to woop-woop (Qld). One arvo, her and hubby cark it in a bingle. Gerald drove like a hoon; no wonder he stacked it. Next, their ankle biter gets crook, and falls off his perch too. Strewth! All pretty dodge, so Macca’s called in to have a sticky beak.
(We resume normal English.) Accident by Design is another excellent detective story from Lorac. This one is a family murder of the best English sort; a soundly constructed, smoothly written, fair-play detective story with three murders and a couple of attempts. It is almost a straight novel with detective interludes; most of the story is told from the suspects’ perspective, and Macdonald appears late.
But Accident by Design is also an examination of class. Jacques Barzun compared the detective story to French tragédie classique: its restricted framework could be used to study character and theme.
“As a family, they [the Vansteads] overvalued their own possessions,” Macdonald comments at the end. “The only thing that seems to matter to them is property.”
The Vansteads are not amused when ineffectual Gerald, his father’s heir, turns up married to an Australian. Meriel is vulgar and brash – by their standards – but shrewd and practical. “She has neither education, savoir-faire, or even passable manners,” the secretary Standish comments. Only the estate manager Barton has much good to say about her; he appreciates that she is a good farmer. “She’s been treated as an interloper and a nitwit, and she isn’t a fool by any reasonable standards.” (Farmers in Lorac’s books, like Giles Hoggett in the rural Lune mysteries, tend to be sympathetic, objective observers – intelligent men with their feet on the ground.)
Gerald and Meriel threaten the settled way of life at Templedean: when his father dies, Gerald has threatened to make a clean sweep of all the Templedean employees and hangers-on. The motive for the crimes is to maintain social position – a motive shared across classes, from the chauffeur to Gerald’s sister and uncle.
Or could the crime have been committed by someone who looked up to the Vansteads, like the secretary Standish? (John Dickson Carr commented that the secretary was the most common murderer, because he mixed with the gentry, but was not quite of their class.) Standish prides himself on being ‘one of the family’, but they see him as “a rank outsider”. He is middle-class; he was not brought up with servants, so treats them high-handedly, while they despise him because he is not gentry. (University degrees mean nothing to them.)
Lorac’s books succeed as detective problems, as character novels, and as social commentary. Dare I say she deserves more renown?
No one could call the Vansteads a happy family. Templedean Place had become a house divided against itself. The gracious, well-bred serenity of a fast vanishing mode of life typified by its master, the invalid Sir Charles, and his daughter Judith clashed violently with the harsher and more realistic outlook on life which Judith’s brother Gerald and his Australian wife brought from the prison camps of Malaya. It was not a question of who was right and who was wrong: it was just a question of fundamental incompatibility, aggravated by the knowledge that on Sir Charles’s death Templedean and its rich farms would go to Gerald, and Judith would be tolerated where she had reigned, or banished entirely. It was an atmosphere to breed tragedy, and when Gerald and his wife are killed in a car accident, Chief Inspector Macdonald has the uneasy feeling that it could have been accident by design.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 29th October 1950): The usual carefully constructed, rural family murder case which we expect from this eminently trustworthy exponent of the English Georgian [Georgic?] school of whodunnit. Some interesting W.V.S. types and a strong finish by Inspector Macdonald.