‘Crossed Skis’ was a little gem of a read. It was brisk, lightly written and full of energy. To me, it felt like a pleasant travelogue with a mystery attached but I didn’t mind at all because the travelogue was so well done.
‘Crossed Skis’ is a contemporary account of a 1951 Police investigation into a murder committed during a robbery. It’s told in two linked narratives that converge on each other for an action-packed ending. The first narrative follows the steps that the police in London use to identify and pursue the murderer, who they suspect travelled abroad on New Year’s Day, leaving yet another body behind him. The second narrative follow s a group of eighteen young men and women leaving London on New Year’s Day to go by boat and train to Lech in the Austrian Alps for two weeks of skiing. The group has even numbers of men and women, many of whom are meeting for the first time, having been recommended as members of the party by friends of friends.
The first narrative is a Police procedural with a lot of dogged footwork by the police, little bits of bad luck for the mostly competent and resourceful murderer and a little inspired intuition by the DCI Julian Rivers.
The second narrative is an extended game of ‘guess which of these men is the murderer’, structured around all the fun of skiing in the Alps.
Both narratives are populated with characters who are swiftly but convincingly drawn and who are most often brought to life by convincing dialogue.
When the two narratives converge, the pace picks up and results in a spectacular pursuit on skis through a snowstorm. All of which was executed with energy and speed.
My enjoyment of the book was greatly increased by Carl Carnac’s skill at making everyday activities interesting. I loved the little details of life in 1952 London that I’d never thought of, like single women living together in a residential club, presided over by a matron and that many of those women would have had classified service roles in World War II. Or that, in these pre-text days, abbreviations like GOK (God Only Knows) were used in speech. Or how depressing post-war London was with rationing and currency restrictions and a lack of jobs.
I read ‘Crossed Skis’ as part of my Cold Comfort reading challenge, so I was pleased that I got the most pleasure from the travelogue parts of the book: from the mechanics of travelling that distance by boat and train, through to the account of the Alpine farms and how they kept their animals, to the descriptions of the skiing itself. It was all vividly described and had an infectious sense of joy attached to it. I could feel the relief of these young people, who had spent their teens to early twenties in the war and who were now slogging through often dreary lives in England, at being able to travel to a country with great scenery, good food, fresh coffee, and the opportunity to though themselves down the mountain in skis.
The only thing that didn’t work so well for me was the final chapters when Rivers and the two main characters from the skiing party swap notes and tie up loose ends. It felt quite anti-climatic after the drama of a chase through the snow. I felt as if I was having a magic trick explained – which I always find a little tedious.
Carol Carnac and ECR Lorac were the nom de plumes for Edith Caroline Rivett-Carnac, an English golden-age mystery writer and member of The Detective Club.
Between 1931 and 1958 she published twenty-three Carol Carnac books and forty-eight ECR Lorac books.