Crossed Skis (1952) – Carol Carnac

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Stifled by grey post-WW2 London, Bridget Manners and a group of her friends (and friends of friends) escape to the beautiful ski slopes of Lech in Austria. Their bliss is only slightly disrupted by a few odd incidents.
Meanwhile, back in London, Mrs Stein’s house has burned down – and sadly, one of her tenants seems to have perished from the blaze. A chance observation – the print of a ski pole – links the case to a daring bank robbery from a few months ago, and soon Inspector Rivers begins tracking down where the culprit could have vanished to.

This is my first encounter with a work by “Carol Carnac” – except not quite. I’ve read (not yet reviewed) works under her more familiar pen-name of “E.C.R. Lorac” previously. Apparently, like John Dickson Carr, she adopted the alternate name due to her sheer output of books. I’d heard the “Carnac” books referred to as “psychological mysteries”, but this one felt to me more like half a “mainstream” novel, with the police investigation half adding some spice and tension to the skiing ski-ing half.

In thread one, we follow the skiiers to Lech, getting to know them as they navigate the complications – or lack thereof – involved in post-war European travel. This topic also came up in Death on the Riviera by John Bude. Perhaps readers at the time would find this familiar – or maybe they’d find it exotic, with their excitement building along with the characters at the fresh landscapes they come across. Reading now, it works as a document of a very specific time.

Now, at the beginning of the book is Carnac’s dedication. It’s to her own real-life ski-ing group, with 16 names listed. And there are indeed 16 members of the fictional group too, and this is only one half of the plot! Fortunately, Carnac, by now 20 years and 50(!) books into her career, is deftly able to remove many of these characters from the limelight and keep the focus of the book manageable.
Once the group reaches Austria, the perspective settles on the artist Kate. She’s a little older than the rest of the group, and prefers to explore the local area rather than ski, so unfortunately anyone expecting constant ski-ing action will be disappointed. But this allows Carnac time to paint a more vivid picture of the mountainous landscape, and contrast it with the grey London of the other thread.
By this point the narrative is only interested in a smaller group within the skiers. The group conversations feel very natural and are a pleasure to read, and I found myself enjoying these characters’ company (aside from when they’re stereotyping “the Irishman” Robert O’Hara, which made me pretty uncomfortable).

Back in London, thread two begins with Mrs Stein, whose terraced house miraculously survived the Blitz. But the plot kicks off with her ne’er-do-well son delivering the news that her house has caught fire. The police soon discover there is one casualty, and set out to investigate the death.
The main investigator here is Chief Inspector Rivers, compared to Chief Inspector Macdonald who leads the Lorac books. Having read a few Loracs there seems to be little difference between the two. Macdonald is Scottish, Rivers is maybe a tad more gregarious. Both of them are thoughtful, practical men who work well with their subordinates. It’s the rest of the characters who provide the interest here.
Mrs Stein is an interesting character in her own right – perhaps unusually for Golden Age style fiction, given her lower-class status. She has a lot to cope with, between the loss of her house and the problems caused by her son. She does get to experience an amusing moment of triumph, though it might have been nice if the book wrapped up her story more given the attention it had earlier.
Through the realist philanthropy of Mrs Stein’s lodger George Bell, and the cheerful but savvy companionship of the members of the all-female residential club, I got a sense of what life was like after WW2 for many walks of life. Compared to the gleaming ski slopes of Lech, the physical description doesn’t stand out, but Carnac allows the reader glimpses into a bustling, buzzing city – something that’s also a strong point of the other London-set books of hers that I’ve read.

The aim of the investigation – the identification of a body and the tracking down of a suspect – follows the “humdrum” template, but Carnac is more interested in the people and the push-and-pull of teasing information out of them. The answers to the investigators’ problems often arrive (as Rivers admits) via luck, but they always take full advantage of these opportunities, so it still felt like they deserved their results – and they face dead ends just as often. I particularly liked a devious (possibly unethical) trick they pulled in order to get some fingerprints.
As it becomes clearer the direction the investigation is heading, this raises the tension in the ski-ing thread – as the police (and therefore the reader) learn more, we can start to look for clues among the skiers; though a puzzle mystery isn’t really what this book is about. There are clues present, but they don’t provide the main pleasure of the book. With this in mind, the puzzle-plot style explanation at the end felt awkward, though I would have been disappointed without an explanation so Carnac can’t really win!

I’d recommend this novel to anyone who’s happy reading something in-between a crime novel and a mainstream novel. Those hankering for high drama or a complex puzzle plot may find it disappointing. But if you’re interested in postwar life in London and travel in Europe then there’s a ton of fascinating atmosphere and bits of information here. Carnac’s writing is at its most vivid and readable here, so there’s a lot to enjoy.

Other opinions:

Dead Yesterday
Do You Write Under Your Own Name?
Fiction Fan Blog
The Grandest Game in the World
Jason Half
Mrs K Investigates
Mysteries Ahoy

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