Along a quiet valley, dotted with sheep farms, a dangerous criminal enterprise is afoot. What begins as a spate of sheep-stealing, escalates to arson and murder. Luckily for the villagers, Inspector MacDonald is visiting the area as he considers buying property ahead of his retirement from the police force. His attempt to remain on vacation doesn’t last long as he begins to assist local authorities in their inquiry.
He drove until he reached a level stretch and a firm piece of turf where he could pull the car off the narrow road, and then he got out and strolled over the rough ground to an outcrop of rock from whose topmost ridge he could see the stone-flagged roofs and the wind-clipped trees of High Gimmerdale, tucked away below, all unsuspected, in a fold of the high fells.
Gilbert Woolfall stood there for a long time, trying to analyse the sense of enchantment which always possessed him when he looked down at the the huddle of ancient stone steadings hidden away in this vast solitude of hill country. ~ Pg. 3
Aikengill is a farmhouse, beloved by many locals. So much so that when its current occupant passes away and a nephew comes to set affairs in order, multiple people express an interest in taking up residence. A young couple looking to make a start of their own farm, and the current housekeeper offers to stay on as long as needed. The nephew hasn’t quite decided but begins going through his uncle’s papers. He locks up the house for a couple of days, but the housekeeper comes back to stay over when she can’t get a ride into town to her own home. Mrs. Ramsden is trapped by the arsonist’s fire and becomes the first known victim of the criminal.
While the official police investigate the fire (and if the arsonist knew Mrs. Ramsden was in), MacDonald focuses on the bizarre happenings on the fells. He tramps over hillsides, befriends the locals, discovers historical crofts, uncovers ancient church contracts, and more.
Looking back over his shoulder to the west, Macdonald saw the great curves of the river [Lune] far below — Crook o’Lune. To a policeman’s mind there was something apposite about the juxtaposition of the words — sheep-stealing and a crook. Not a shepherd’s crook, but a human crook, the type of gentry Macdonald spent his life chasing. ~ Pg. 47
I’ve read a few ECR Lorac mysteries, thanks to the republishing efforts of British Library and Poisoned Pen Press, and this was by far my favorite. Lorac delivers a great puzzle but it is the setting that shines. The characters feel very real, and one cannot help but chuckle at the despised vicar (he bears shades of Austen’s Mr. Collins). Having walked Hadrian’s Wall last year, I found myself especially drawn to the scenes of hiking on quiet moors. Minus the crime, of course. Adding to the enjoyment for the reader is that the mystery itself makes sense. It’s a satisfying ending and a great time along the way.
My thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for the review copy.
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press; Reissue edition (July 11, 2023)
Paperback: 288 pages