Death Before Dinner (1948) by E C R Lorac

Le Jardin de Olives is one of the most exclusive places to eat in all of London in the late 1940s. An establishment that survived and prospered even during the war – due to a dinner room located in a bunker – it is the perfect venue for a meeting for prospective members of that most exclusive club for explorers, the Marco Polo club. Eight world-travellers have met up, having received an invitation that explains that they are to be considered for membership.

As they talk, they begin to realise that this is, in fact, some sort of practical joke and there is no place in the club at stake at all. The perpetrator of that joke would seem to be one Elias Towne, a fellow explorer who was seen in the vicinity of the restaurant earlier, before leaving. As the annoyed guests prepare to sit down to dine and discuss setting up their own rival club, the owner of the restaurant makes a discovery. It seems that Elias Towne returned to the restaurant, only to be bludgeoned to death behind a screen in the dining room. Enter Inspector MacDonald.

This has all the potential for a great read. Explorers don’t get that much of a look-in in Golden Age detective fiction, so there’s loads of ideas to mine there, along with the mechanics of how the victim returned to the room unseen (and indeed was murdered without anyone noticing?)

So why is the book so blooming boring? Because this is one of the most tedious books I’ve read in a long time.

The explorers are all fairly character-free and despite their number being basically cut in half (as we only really follow/suspect about four of them) they all come across as clones of each other, with the exception of one, but only because she doesn’t have a Y chromosome. I don’t think cloning can manage that. Inspector MacDonald is hardly a stand-up comedian either, usually relying on bouncing off more interesting suspects – the narrative switches from the explorers to him and back again, but neither of them caught my interest.

I do like Lorac generally – Two-Way Murder was very good, as is Rope’s End, Rogue’s End, along with some others, but it’s clear from this one that she was not always on form. One to avoid.

4 comments

      • I agree that motive is highly individual, and if proper characterization is used otherwise weak motives can be made believable. In this particular case the motive was a very primary part of the solution and I simply could not believe that the perpetrator would risk hanging for what, even if caught, would merely be embarrassing.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I haven’t read this one, but it’s near the top of a massive tbr pile because ages ago, someone told me it was good. Maybe they were mistaken, but in any event, it’s definitely true that Lorac/Carnac was not always on form. In fact, I think that’s true of almost every highly productive novelist. Over the decades, hardly anyone has managed to write two or three really good crime novels each year for a sustained period and the drive for productive tends to be…er, counter-productive. One of the adverse consequences of this is that one can read a poor book (or one that is in some other way unrepresentative) by a writer who has actually written a number of good ones, and dismiss him or her on the basis of that. Understandable, but sometimes unfortunate, and it’s a problem that persists to the present day.

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