This post is a contribution to Pattinase’s Friday’s Forgotten Books
Title: Ligney’s Lake
Author: S H Courtier
Publisher: Wakefield Crime Classics [original edition 1971, this edition 1992]
Length: 176 pages
Setting: Australia, 1969 (contemporary)
Genre: Amateur sleuth / bibliomystery
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Lewis Ligney is a vaguely mysterious high-ranking official with the Australian Government. He’s physically imposing via his size and the fact his face has been badly disfigured from an incident during WW2. Sandy Carmichael is a freelance engineer who befriends Ligney, his sister’s next door neighbour, and finds him an intelligent. congenial companion. One evening Carmichael sees Ligney at a boxing match in Melbourne but when he tries to make contact Ligney claims he doesn’t know Carmichael and disappears from the venue. Carmichael then reads in the newspaper that Ligney is missing, presumed drowned at Bateman’s Bay. Carmichael knows he saw Ligney after the supposed drowning and sets out to find, and hopefully help, his friend but discovers that Ligney had many enemies.
Things to look for
This book drips its Australian-ness from every page starting with the central premise. In what surely must be a unique event among nations Australia’s serving Prime Minister, Harold Hold, disappeared and was presumed drowned while swimming in the ocean in 1967 so having an important Canberra identity disappear in this fashion is clearly borrowed from the news headlines There’s also the novel’s language and its protagonist’s journey up and down much of the East Coast of the country. In all the book is as Aussie as they come. Which makes the fact it was never published in Australia during the author’s life something of a mystery itself.
Although I’ve no evidence to back up my theory I wonder if Courtier was the victim of what A A Phillips termed our cultural cringe: a phenomenon which saw, until quite recently, virtually every artistic endeavour in Australia viewed as inferior to that produced elsewhere (especially the UK). It’s certainly interesting to ponder that Courtier’s very Australian books found publishers in the UK and US right up until the 1970′s while these days many Australian crime fiction authors (such as Michael Robotham, P D Martin and Barry Maitland) set their crime fiction in the UK or the US to increase their chances of being published in those countries.
The plot is well constructed and, aside from the fact I never quite understood why Sandy went to such efforts on behalf of Ligney, fairly credible. Although set long after the end of WW2 the war plays a pivotal role in the story but I think it’s quite realistic that people would have had vivid memories of the dramatic events that took place 20-25 years earlier. The resolution is quite a page-turner and quite unpredictable too.
I’d not heard the term bibliomystery before seeing the publishers mention it in the afterword here but I’ve certainly read my fair share of novels in which books or things associated with them are central to the plot. In Ligney’s Lake it is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden that plays a key role. Courtier did a reasonable job of explaining the significance of the book to Ligney (and therefore this story) but I have to admit that my total ignorance of Walden made for some confusing moments.
Where the book falls down a bit for me is in its characterisations which are quite one-dimensional and a bit ‘blokey’ but quite representative of the time it was written. If, for example, Sandy had been more fleshed out it probably would have been clear why he went to such lengths for someone who appeared to be little more than an acquaintance.
A miscellaneous fact or three
Only two of Sidney Hobson Courtier’s 26 novels were ever published in Australia during his lifetime, with the remainder being published by English and American publishing houses. He also had five novels translated into German.
Courtier was born in rural Victoria in 1904 and died in 1974 and so was a contemporary (though older) of the more well known (and far more prolific) Arthur Upfield and Carter Brown (both of whom also had much of their work published outside Australia instead of or before it was published in this country).
Courtier was a school teacher who wrote 10 standalone crime fiction novels of which this is one, more than a dozen books that formed two series featuring different police inspectors and approximately 200 short stories. All of Courtier’s crime fiction novels are listed here.
When he died Courtier left an unfinished science fiction novel which he apparently hadn’t settled on a title for.
In a 2008 exhibition called Murderous Melbourne: A Celebration of Australian Crime Fiction and Place two of S H Courtier’s books inspired props to be designed by Melbourne University’s architecture students. This is one of the images of the exhibition but you can find out a bit more about crime fiction’s relationship to place by watching this video (the section on the exhibition starts at about 2:44).
A final word
I don’t think I’m alone in being woefully ignorant of my own country’s crime fiction heritage so I am quite chuffed to have found such a decent example by this neglected author who seems to have loved his country even if it didn’t return the favour. I’m not sure I found all the literary allusions the publishers of my edition saw but I did enjoy a ripping Aussie yarn.