Shroud of Darkness (E.C.R. Lorac)

  • By E.C.R. Lorac
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1954; US: Doubleday, 1954

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The thickest ‘London particular’ for half a century swirled round them, noisome, poisonous, terrifying: a monster of a fog, strangling all movement in the streets, weighing down the cheerful, terrifying the fearful, dealing death to the frail.

Chapter 1

Although never quite an arty “Crime Queen”, Lorac’s post-war work moved steadily towards the Agatha Christieish character-driven detective story (e.g. Accident by Design); but in this 1954 novel, she combines the police procedural with the psychological mystery in the manner of Helen McCloy.

The “Shroud of Darkness” is the Great Smog of 1952, which smothered London for five days, killing as many as 12,000 people. In the pea-souper, a young man is bludgeoned at Paddington Station; he survives the attack, but lies in a coma, with no clue to his identity. Who he is, and why would anyone want to kill him, is a mystery almost as impenetrable as the smog.

It was still foggy, but not with the standstill blackness of last night. Today traffic moved slowly through yellow curtains of grime, grinding along in a convalescent sort of way and jerking to a standstill occasionally, when tired drivers got the gremlins and saw nightmare shapes looming up through the eye-stinging abomination which usurped the air.

Chapter 2

Identifying the injured lad involves much routine and questioning, “the patient, detailed enquiry which is the mainstay of detection”. Chief Inspector Macdonald visits a Devon sheepfarm, and learns that the boy was adopted after the Plymouth bombing of 1941, when he was found naked and shivering on a hillside, unable to speak.

But why does he speak German, and why does he recognize a house in Köln? It may have something to do with an undiscovered Nazi agent and an American metallurgist missing since 1941. (I was reminded of McCloy’s 1940 novel, The One That Got Away, which also deals with Nazis, refugees, and adolescent psychology.)

Meanwhile, Insp. Reeve makes enquiries at a seedy pub nearby which a policeman was coshed and a customer run over by a lorry. The case ends with an attempted murder on the Dunkirk night ferry.

You might think you spot the murderer; from two-thirds through, I was certain of “Who”, and, remembering Part for a Poisoner (1948), of “How”. But are you right? Has Lorac let the cat out of the bag, or has she palmed a suspect on you? Or is that what she wants you to think? Is it too obvious, or is it too too obvious? Let’s just say that she adroitly manipulates the reader’s expectations while keeping X just enough in view to be out of sight (perhaps too much so?).

Lorac also pays tribute to her colleagues; Penguin copies of Josephine Tey’s Franchise Affair (1948), Margery Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge (1936), Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve, and a Ngaio Marsh play a part.


1954 Collins

The fog-bound train from Exeter crawled slowly towards Paddington. Sarah Dillon had made friends with the attractive boy who shared a compartment with herself and the formidable “writing” lady in the corner. The train made an unscheduled stop at Reading, due to the thick “London Particular” which had spread out far to the West; there the compartment was invaded by two more men, one a prosperous business man, the other an obvious spiv. The boy Sarah had befriended seemed to become rattled and withdrawn after Reading. Had he something to fear from the newcomers to their compartment? Sarah could not guess, nor did she attach much significance to the boy’s words when the train reached Paddington; when he seemed suddenly to recognise one of his fellow-passengers. Minutes later the boy had his head bashed in while still in the station. His pockets had been emptied to hide his identity, and his assailant had vanished in the swirling fog. From such slender information Chief Inspector Macdonald had to work. Other crimes followed, and his enquiries took him to Devon and to a pub of doubtful reputation in North London. He got his man at last in an exciting and surprising climax on board a Channel steamer. This story will grip you throughout and have you guessing to the end.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 28th March 1954): Bashing of a nervous young man in a fog at Paddington Station.  Curious behaviour of a psychiatrist in love with his secretary.  Inspector Macdonald’s investigation leads forward to a Dartmoor farm and back to wartime espionage.  Cosy as ever with sharply focussed interest.

Illustrated London News (K. John, 19th June 1954): Shroud of Darkness, by E. C. R. Lorac, opens on the Cornish express to Paddington, in an infernal fog. The boy in Sarah Dillon’s carriage, at first quite chatty, seems distracted by the thickening air – and after Reading, where two new passengers get in, falls into such state that she is afraid he may be epileptic. Then at the terminus he rushes after them… Later he is picked up by the railway police, savagely battered on the head and just alive. There is no clue to his identity; and it is Sarah’s slender help that leads Chief Inspector Macdonald to a wild farm on the Devon moors, and his colleague to a North London pub. This first part is extremely taking. When once the victim has been traced, things are not quite the same; but they are good enough.

Christopher Pym in the Daily Dispatch: There is some nice solid detective work by London policemen and an exciting surprise ending.

Other reviews

2 thoughts on “Shroud of Darkness (E.C.R. Lorac)

  1. Thanks for the mention. Great review of the book. Loved your inclusion of the details of the Great Smog and contemporary reviews. I haven’t yet read Helen McCloy but your comparison makes me want to.

    Liked by 1 person

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