- By E.C.R. Lorac
- First published: UK: Collins, 1943; US: Mystery House, 1943
Elderly Professor Crewdon, an anthropologist, uses the hermit’s cave on his daughter’s Devon estate as his bedroom; one morning, he is found peacefully dead in his makeshift chambers – from carbon monoxide poisoning. At first, his death seems to have been an accident … but how could the charcoal have been lit?
I had low expectations. Curt Evans calls it a dud; he considers it lacks cohesion, and was unengaged. TomCat thought the book dull and uninspired – “a trudge to read”. I was pleasantly surprised. Death Came Softly is minor Lorac, but agreeable all the same; I read the book sitting outside under the bottlebrush on a leisurely Sunday afternoon. As a pleasant, undemanding detective story, it’s ideal.
The plot is not Lorac’s most complex. The murderer, for whatever reason (a paucity of suspects? a too-straightforward plot?), is quite obvious. A remark in Chapter III awakened my suspicions – before the murder had even been committed – and I was certain by the end of Chapter X. But Lorac’s quiet blend of Humdrum detection and character novel is still enjoyable. The setting is (as my critical confrères say) idyllic: an Italianate house surrounded by water meadows, woodlands, and gardens. The characters too are refreshingly intelligent: archaeologists, scholars, poets, travellers. Even Inspector Macdonald, we learn, is the sort of policeman who can argue Berkeleyan metaphysics while hiking. The method is rather like one of Major Street’s clever murder devices – in fact, one might almost call it… (No, let’s not make that pun; it would give the game away; those who’ve read the book can fill in the blanks.)
Valehead House, standing so serenely in the sunshine among the rich Devonshire meadows, appealed to Mrs. Merrion from the moment she first glimpsed it. to her it was the happy ending to a wearisome home-hunting expedition and she arranged to move in with her father, Professor Crewdon. But her happiness, as often happens, was suddenly snatched from her by the tragic death of her father, whose body was found in a cave on the estate. Chief Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard was called in and was soon looking for motive, method and opportunity. Once again E. C. R. Lorac tells an absorbing and ingenious detective story.
The New York Times Book Review: Good characterisation and well-sustained suspense are the outstanding features of this expertly planned mystery.