Wednesday 19 April 1995
Ferrars was literate, intelligent, often ingenious, not frighteningly intellectual, and those who picked up her books - hundreds of thousands of them per year (she was consistently placed in the highest Public Lending Right band, always earning the maximum payment) - were guaranteed an enjoyable and absorbing couple of hours.
Born in Burma in 1907, Ferrars received an establishment education: Bedales School in Hampshire (1918-24), then University College London (1925-28), where she gained a diploma in journalism in her final years. In her writing career, two mainstream novels published in the early 1930s (under her real name, Morna MacTaggart) were a false start. The publication in 1940, however, of Give a Corpse a Bad Name led to a lifetime's imaginative and accumulatively - for her bank balance - useful toil.
She started as she meant to go on. Having found her niche she proceeded to bombard her publishers, Hodder & Stoughton - who had a penchant for superior crime fiction, although an over-paternalistic attitude towards its own practitioners - with manuscripts. Her first five books were all issued in the three years from 1940 to 1942, and for this reason she may legitimately be regarded as one of the very last authors of detective fiction from the genre's "Golden Age": since wartime paper restrictions finally transformed good, fat library novels into sad and skinny chapbooks in 1942, generally regarded as the year when the door finally closed on the great days of Mayhem Parva.
Not that Ferrars was overmuch of an enthusiast for cranking out murder- at-the-vicarage or body-in-the-library epics. She had a far more elegant sensibility: she stopped writing about her first series sleuth, the "journalist of sorts" Toby Dyke, because she "got to hate him so much". But this did not stop her on occasion from dreaming up a chapter-ending which might feature - as in the enthralling and cleverly worked out I, Said the Fly (1945) - a shrieking woman with dishevelled hair and a crazed expression, clutching "in one hand a hatchet, drenched in blood".
Elizabeth Ferrars was enormously popular in America where her publishers bestowed upon her the rather tougher cognomen "E.X. Ferrars" (for much the same absurdly sexist reason that the American crime writer Elizabeth Fenwick was known as "E.P. Fenwick" for a time). Together with such luminaries as Julian Symons, Michael Gilbert and "Cyril Hare", she was a founder member of the British Crime Writers' Association in 1953, becoming its Chair in 1977. She was given a "lifetime's achievement" award by the CWA in the early 1980s, when in her mid- seventies, when her oeuvre had reached around the 50-novelmark.
Astonishingly, her rate of production then speeded up, and during the 1980s she published 16 books, none of them potboilers. Her latest, A Choice of Evils, came out only two months ago, and at least one more of her intelligent and carefully crafted puzzles, Thief in the Night, will be issued later this year. Such was her latter-day fecundity, and ability to keep well ahead of publishing schedules, there may even be one or two more.
Morna MacTaggart (Elizabeth Ferrars), writer: born 6 September 1907; married; died 30 March 1995.
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