Never judge a book by its cover – so the saying goes. But I expect we’re all guilty of breaking that one sometimes, both literally and figuratively. I certainly did when I bought a copy of Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac. I’m fairly new to detective/crime fiction and I’m not hugely knowledgeable about it. I’m a member of a few related Facebook groups and I enjoy reading what others have to say but I rarely presume to get involved.
I had never heard of the author and it was only when I read Martin Edwards’ introduction (I have heard of him and know he knows a thing or two!) that I realised that Carol Carnac also wrote as ECR Lorac, of whom I have heard. And I do know about the British Library! So I felt fairly safe in purchasing one of their Crime Classics reprints.
However, I bought this book entirely on the strength of its cover – for three reasons. One, it’s a picture of Innsbruck, a city I love. Two, the cover is actually a railway poster. I collect prints of those and I actually have this one (see point one above!). The third reason will only make any sense to some of my readers. The Chalet School.
In 1925 Chambers published The School at the Chalet by Elinor Brent-Dyer. Set in the Austrian Tirol, in what is actually Pertisau-am-Achensee (although it is renamed Briesau-am-Tiernsee), it is the first book in a series that went on to number fifty eight. I read these books as a child (long after their original publication dates, I must add!) and went on to collect them. I enjoyed the stories but it was the setting that captured me. Elinor Brent-Dyer did a marvellous job of bringing the area to life and it quickly became somewhere I aspired to visit.
Crossed Skis is set partly in Austria, just across the Tirolean border in Lech in Vorarlberg. A group of sixteen friends, acquaintances and friends of friends heads there for some skiing, leaving London on New Year’s Day. The other setting of the book remains the English capital and a murder enquiry, until eventually the two strands entwine. I enjoyed the detective story very much and cared about the main characters. But what fascinated me most were the glimpses into the political situation in Europe.
The book was published in 1952 and was inspired by, perhaps based on, the author’s own visit there a year earlier. Austria at that point was still under Allied occupation, with Vorarlberg and Tirol forming the French Zone. It was interesting to me to read the snippets of conversation making it clear that travel across the country was still tricky and that there were concerns about security. I knew that the Austrian State Treaty was signed in 1955 (on the date that would become my birthday as it happens!) but I don’t think I had ever grasped how the complex international situation affected daily life.
Only the first thirteen and a half Chalet School books were set in Austria. Their author didn’t shy away from current affairs and the school was forced to leave the country after the March 1938 Anschluss with Germany. It never returned. And that puzzled me for some time. But, as far as it is possible to place the books in history (there are many internal inconsistencies), the series ended in around 1957 – although the last book was published in 1970. That makes it understandable that the school moved first to Guernsey (oops!) and then to Wales and Switzerland, the latter being as close to Austria as the books’ politically aware author could get.
So yes, I judged a book by its cover but I’m glad I did. I had fun reading it, my general knowledge was expanded and it added to my enjoyment of another series.