Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R Lorac – A complex Crime Classic from the British Library

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A murder after dark in a park. A complex investigation of some colourful characters. A bombing in London as part of the blitz. Witnesses with an interest in the case. There is so much to admire in this book, a classic murder mystery of the Golden Age of Detection. A murder seemingly carried out in seemingly impossible circumstances as this one is represents some clever planning, in execution as well as working out the plot. This is not only a murder mystery; its original publication date in 1945 means that is set squarely in the Second World War and there are moral questions which that conflict raises. The recent reprinting by British Library Crime Classics is an excellent opportunity to revisit the writing of this author with a lower profile than her contemporaries such as Sayers or Christie, but who had an excellent grasp of even minor characters and their role in a novel. Martin Edwards, in his excellent Introduction, calls it a “crisp story, concisely told” which he hopes will increase the number of her admirers, of which I am one. I was very pleased to receive a copy to review.

Bruce Mallaig is wandering in Regent’s Park in the dark, pondering how his female friend Pat, who has been unable to meet him, would be a good choice to marry. The wartime conditions are immediately introduced as the railings are gone, and the black out makes the darkness total. Another man arrives, lights a match and reveals for a brief second a horrid face behind him. Bruce starts forward when he sees an apparent attack, and tries to capture someone jumping over a bridge. When a body is found it seems that an impossible murder has been committed. As Chief Inspector Macdonald begins to investigate, one of the major problems of this case emerges; no one knows for certain who the victim really, partly as a result of the wartime confusion. While identity cards and other indications are found, it seems unlikely that they show the true identity of  the man killed so efficiently, and it proves difficult to identify a killer when any possible motive is therefore obscure. The victim frequented a house with many theatrical lodgers, all with their own stories, and all with their own views of the workshy man. When even the seemingly uninvolved appear to have a motive Macdonald is left somewhat bewildered, but continues his methodical yet inspired investigations. Supported by the sterling but determined efforts of other police officers, he tries to discover who is likely to be guilty against a background of bombs and destruction. I particularly enjoyed his conversations with the redoubtable Mrs.Maloney, housekeeper and philosopher as they rally round to life after revelations and danger.

Lorac is immensely capable as she manages to hold all the strands of this story together, and deals with all the characters who have a possible involvement. She obviously enjoys writing some of them, as a clever performer reveals much, an embattled London is described, and even the method of murder seems to become more obscure. The question of why a single murder in the face of so many civilian deaths warrants so much careful investigation is very reasonably raised, eliciting the answer that without justice for the dead there is no hope for civilization. This is a mature, complex and deeply satisfying murder mystery with so much more; a vivid picture of a city at war, and an examination of why one death matters.

 

Meanwhile life at the Vicarage following my essay crisis (spoiler – I handed it in on time – just) and leading a Study Day continues with me making a determined effort to hit my huge pile of books that need to be read for review. Some are for definite dates, others just as soon as possible, others I have found that I just want to read. As other distractions have lessened for a while, it’s full steam ahead….


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