RogerBW's Blog

The Luck Runs Out, Charlotte MacLeod 26 September 2015

1981, cosy American detective fiction; second of MacLeod's novels of Professor Peter Shandy, set at an agricultural college in Massachussetts. A few days before the Annual Competition of the Balaclava County Draft Horse Association, the college's farrier has been murdered. And the prize pig has gone missing. Is it a school prank gone horribly wrong, or something more sinister?

Another very light book from MacLeod, who refuses to let a small matter like murder get in the way of the comic novels that she seems to want to write. Before the business gets started we have exchanges such as:

"Shouldn't you be training for the oat-shucking contest or something?"

"There won't be one. It is not possible to shuck an oat. Oats don't have shucks."

"Then what do they have? Oh, I know, it's always in crossword puzzles. Awns. No, I suppose one couldn't very well hold an awning, could one?"

"Not over an oat, at any rate. At least I daresay one could and it's entirely possible somebody has, but it would seem a footling sort of activity. Why don't you look it up? If there are any statistics available, I suppose I ought to know about them."

and even the death of a well-liked (if not well-known) person doesn't slow things down much. Oh, and there's a gold and silver robbery, and the daughter of the president of the college going to her room and refusing to talk to anyone.

Most of the players from the previous book have only minor roles here; Peter is the principal, and both Thorkjeld Svenson the president of the college and his wife Sieglinde get larger parts to play than before. Indeed, both of them betray unexpected depths.

"Go, then, I will keep a herring in the window for you."

"Mama," said Gudrun, the second youngest, "it's a candle you're supposed to keep in the window."

"Nonsense, my child. A candle would smoke up the glass and drip on the sill. A herring lies looking mournful and bereft. The symbolism is much more meaningful. Also it comes in handy for smorgasbord later. Get ready now at once or you will miss the school bus."

Where a lesser writer might be happy with stock characters, MacLeod insists on putting in people. Yes, they're funny people with quirks and so on, but even the Ungodly come across as actual individuals rather than cardboard cut-outs from Central Casting.

The plot itself is reasonably well-organised, though most of the clues get demolished around the half-way mark and the shape of what's left is pretty unambiguous. Still, everything is wrapped up neatly with explanations for all the strangeness that has been going on, and there's a triple wedding celebration to finish things off.

This book defines "cosy" in a way that Agatha Christie, often cited as an exemplar of the style, doesn't: one knows going in that, while there will indeed be a horrible murder, the small world of the college is never seriously under threat and it'll all come out right in the end.

Followed by Wrack and Rune.

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