“I know how careful the hunted have to be, and how cunning.”
A Jewish refugee in London is robbed of the pearls that represent her only savings. A dead woman bobs up in the Thames. And Elsaby Thorn barely catches the train to Penzance, thanks to handsome stranger Guy Lynton, who carries her striped suitcase for her. It’s only when they’re pulled off the train by Scotland Yard that Elsaby learns it isn’t her suitcase at all—someone at the station switched cases, walking off with her boss’s latest scientific discovery.
Chief Inspector Julian Rivers is convinced these three events are connected, he just isn’t sure how. Was the theft of the suitcase intentional espionage, an attempt by the thief to ditch his own incriminating luggage, or simply a mixup? Whatever the reason, Elsaby is in it up to her neck, and Guy Lynton may be the last person she should trust.
The Striped Suitcase is a fascinating mystery with a strong sense of its postwar setting. Carol Carnac is a pseudonym of E. C. R. Lorac, and, like Lorac’s Superintendent Macdonald, Julian Rivers has a personality so low-key it barely registers at all. At the same time, however, there’s something soothing about not being asked to care at all about the detectives’ inner lives, allowing the full focus to remain on the crime and the suspects. This is not a traditional whodunnit with a closed circle of suspects, but rather a journey through the murky and chaotic world of London in the immediate aftermath of the war.
As Constable Warren points out, “Times is queer, so to speak. and you’ve got to improvise methods to deal with the times.” The young people involved in the case don’t trust older men to understand this new postwar reality, and Rivers sometimes wonders if they might not be right. The police do not always take the “youngsters” seriously, forgetting that they are experienced far beyond their years due to their wartime service.
That very experience leaves Rivers suspicious of Guy. A former intelligence agent who admits that he’s already bored with civilian life, Guy has the skills to commit these crimes, and it’s a remarkable coincidence that he happened to distract Elsaby at the train station that day. Furthermore, Guy continues to involve himself in the investigation. Whether he’s acting as a sleuth or a killer is what Rivers must learn.
“That chap is only alive because of the quality of his wits. He could sense being followed—he’s had to develop that quality. It’s meant his life to him time and again in the last two years.”
“What a rum world we live in,” mused Rivers, and the other replied:
“Yes, by heck. We’ve taught these youngsters how criminals succeed in evading arrest, and a few other things as well. They’re not going to forget it in ten minutes, however normal they look on the outside. Nice boy, that—and God knows what he’s like inside or what his subconscious may urge him to do.”
The inquiry soon zeroes in on two London districts, St. John’s Wood and Chelsea, which exemplify the changes war has brought to the city. Once a bohemian artists’ haunt, almost a village where everyone knew each other, St. John’s Wood has become a highly desirable neighborhood. Now, it’s easy for a stranger like Guy to infiltrate the area; residents are used to desperate house-hunters turning up at the local pub, hoping to get the inside track on a vacancy.
Chelsea, by contrast, is portrayed as barely hanging on. It was undergoing major redevelopment in the late 1930s, which the war put a stop to. Between that and the Blitz, postwar Chelsea is a wilderness of ruins and empty buildings. There aren’t many left who maintain the old neighborhood spirit like Rivers’ witness Mrs. Bailley.
She had been “in the profession” in her youth; probably in the inter-war years she had been a street-walker, picking up a precarious living. She had been bombed-out here, bombed-out there, evacuated to the country, returning after a few weeks because she could not tolerate life away from the London streets. Every billeting officer knew the type, casual, unstable, ne’er-do-well, always on the move, always complaining, yet still optimistic with the optimism of the Cockney which refused to admit defeat so long as buses and cinemas and fried-fish shops were accessible.
The woman drowned in the Thames proves to be a resident of Chelsea, but this offers few clues to her murder. Rivers puzzles over the contradictions of the victim’s life. “A girl with a face like that couldn’t have been friendless,” but police have not unearthed anyone who knew her. Her rooms are anonymous, containing a few items of secondhand furniture and some utility garments. Maybe she was trying to hide something, or perhaps, like so many others, she had been evacuated and bombed out so many times that she simply had nothing left of the past.
Similarly, the woman known as Mrs. Jacobs is trying to keep a low profile because she is in Britain illegally after fleeing Hitler’s regime. She doesn’t report the theft of her pearls, even though it leaves her destitute, because she fears it would endanger her husband back in Germany (though she realizes that by this point he is almost certainly dead). Rivers is refreshingly free of anti-Semitism and takes her experiences with the seriousness they deserve.
When Rivers first met Mrs. Jacobs he felt uneasy and almost ashamed. He had often seen fear in the eyes of those he interrogated, and felt that fear inspired by the law was salutary and justifiable, but he had never interrogated a woman whom he believed to be innocent who showed the same degree of sick terror coupled to a personal dignity and resignation which did but stress her hopeless fear…It was intolerable to him that anybody should regard an English police officer as they would regard a Gestapo official.
In The Striped Suitcase, Chief Inspector Rivers finds that his biggest challenge in solving the case is dealing with the rootlessness of 1940s society. Even after the war, no one is settled and few people return to the places they came from—indeed, many of those places no longer exist. At one point, Rivers notes that he cannot prove that any of his suspects are who they say they are. On top of that, a generation of young people have received training that could be used for good or for evil. It’s a restless world full of moral ambiguity that can’t be cleared up in a detective’s summing-up scene, but it’s also a world with room for a new future.
Isaac Anderson, New York Times, September 7, 1947
Carol Carnac has presented a crime puzzle which is as absorbing as it is difficult.
New Yorker, August 30, 1947
Pleasant reading, competently handled.
Zero. The Striped Suitcase is out of print and there are currently no copies for sale anywhere.