Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. Lorac – a British Library Crime Classic featuring country life

Sometimes with a murder mystery the location is central to the story; it gives depth and sometimes even clues to the central questions. This book is subtitled “A Devon Mystery”, and the setting in the West Country becomes more important throughout the book, as country ways, the contrast with London attitudes and even the geography of the countryside becomes relevant to the investigation by Lorac’s detective, Inspector Macdonald. This latest book in the highly successful British Library Crime Classic reprint series fulfils all the promise of Lorac’s other novel in the set, “Bats in the Belfrey”. It is a clever novel if only because for much of the time it is not always certain that there is a crime, and certainly the solving of it is far from straightforward.

The novel opens with a tense problem for some of the characters, as Colonel St Cyres tries to avoid his daughter in law, June. She is living with him and his daughter Anne for the duration of the war, in which time this book is set. His son, Denis, is a prisoner of war, and June is an unwilling guest with her small son in order to save money despite her regret at missing life in the society of London. She is hoping that one of her friends, Tom Gressingham, will be able to rent an adjoining cottage and land, but her father in law has other ideas. He has heard of a naval officer invalided out of the service, Nicholas Vaughan, in search of a cottage and the opportunity to farm a small amount of land. When the Colonel meets Vaughan he is most impressed by his sensible plans and determination to transform the long neglected cottage, a project he soon embarks on. Vaughan is a man who appreciates solitude, despite Gressingham, his friends, Brendon and Radcliffe, and June all criticising his lack of involvement. The death of Vaughan, though trailed on the back of the book, took me by surprise, as it is introduced in a clever and novel way, when Wilton, his fellow officer seeks a clarification of what happened. Macdonald arrives in Devon and meets the extremely competent Bolton and together they establish the confusing facts of the case.

This novel depends greatly on the local inhabitants who are slow to welcome newcomers, but are impressed by Vaughan’s industry and commitment to the land. In contrast the Londoners are brash and convinced that their money will buy everything. The evacuee, Alf, is a standout character with his intelligent interest in cars and keenness to help.  Anne, the Colonel’s daughter, is a quiet but eloquent witness who enables the investigation to proceed out of her regard for Vaughan. These and other characters helped to maintain my considerable interest in this novel. This is a confident, well written book in which small details are investigated to great effect, and the setting is carefully explored as the truth is exposed gradually and carefully. Later events are shocking, but well within the reasonable range of the mystery. It is a cleverly constructed novel, not only in terms of guilt but in how the situation developed where murder is likely. The introduction by Martin Edwards explains who Lorac was and how prolific she was in the writing of detection novels.  I do hope that more of her novels are reprinted as they are well written and most enjoyable.

I am so glad that I was able to track down a copy of this book; it was a really good read over a short period of time as I enjoyed it so much. Roll on the next Crime Classic!

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