In a classic case of bringing you opinions that you already read on several blogs more than a year ago, Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac is great, isn’t it? Carol Carnac is a pseudonym for ECR Lorac, whose wartime London novels I have enjoyed hugely. This is set in the postwar period, during the early stages of the Cold War, and in some respects is very different from the ECR Lorac war novels. It follows a group of young men and women who are going to Austria for a skiing holiday. The party has gone through various combinations and permutations in an attempt to get the best deals on train travel and accommodation, so that they don’t all know each other – someone had “an appendix” but suggested a friend; someone else got married and couldn’t find a replacement; someone else couldn’t get the time off work and is flying there. At the station, it’s a muddle of names and faces, for the reader as much as the characters. Still, once the party is at last onto the ski train and out of drab, foggy London with its rations and bureacracy, everyone starts having fun. Meanwhile, Inspector Julian Rivers is still in the capital, looking down at a badly burnt corpse and wondering what on earth is going on.

As with the wartime novels, the specificity of time and place really works well here. There are glimpses at shifting social norms (e.g. they all quickly agree to use “front names” for ease. Fifteen years earlier it would, I suspect, have been Miss and Mr for quite a while into the trip; fifteen years later, I don’t know that they would have bothered to have the conversation), as well as the paranoia about the potential for another war. Austria isn’t behind the Iron Curtain, but neither is it exactly an ally. There are frequent references to papers and checks, and there is a sense that any country could become a dangerous place to be pretty quickly. All this taken together means that the merry young skiing party has an edge-of-hysteria air to it. They’ve been through the privations and trauma of the war, followed by the grim austerity of the postwar period, and they are desperate for an outlet to have some fun. Of course, high spirits of this type can quickly turn to panic and mistrust, and they don’t really know each other at all. Having recently travelled in a group of largely strangers (most of us on our first holiday abroad after a big global emergency, even), I was impressed with the realism of these dynamics. That forced intimacy of trying to act as though people you don’t actually know (and may not like) are your friends – it’s challenging enough. Getting entangled with a police investigation is bound to dramatically increase the awkwardness and tension.

I really loved my armchair trip to the Austrian Alps, somewhere I have never been. (In fact, I stopped reading at one point to google how much it is to get the ski train and stay in an Alpine resort these days – too rich for my blood, unfortunately! While I don’t much like the idea of skiing, I do like the thought of going on walks, exploring local towns and villages, and sitting by a roaring fire with a book). It’s a great environment for a mystery, because it has ostensibly been tamed for tourists, but is in fact a very dangerous place if you step off the beaten track, misjudge the weather, or overestimate your skiing expertise. Carnac really makes the most of the atmosphere. The storyline in London hasn’t stayed with me as vividly, but that’s probably just because postwar London is an environment I’ve encountered in so very many crime novels. The Alpine setting is really the star of this novel, just as blitzed and blacked-out London is in the ECR Lorac novels.

I finished this in the run-up to Christmas and am much later than normal in writing my review, so it’s interesting to see what’s stuck with me. In keeping with the other novels I’ve read by the author, I remember the setting, atmosphere, and character dynamics much more after finishing it than the plot. It’s not to say that ECR Lorac/Carol Carnac isn’t a good plotter – just that it’s not her plots that make her novels great. I don’t think that the BL Classics Club has published any other of this series so far, but I look forward to reading some more in the near future, whether Lorac or Carnac!