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….

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!

Bats in the Belfrey – A London Mystery by E.C.R Lorac – A standout crime Classic

Bats in the Belfry

This latest novel in the British Library Crime Classic series is a fast paced, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable novel. The plot keeps moving, the characters feel like real people, and the investigating detective combines methodical reaction to the crimes with intuitive problem solving. The London setting of 1937 combines the best of the atmospheric pre blitz buildings and surprising settings with a tight radius of possible activity. The characters involved soon become established and represent a genuine range of people and indeed potential suspects and victims. No minor character is without purpose and relevance; as even less senior police officers contribute their best, and Lorac skilfully moves the focus from one character to another while maintaining the onward momentum of events.

The book openings with a gathering of friends and associates at the home of Bruce Attleton, formerly a successful author but now dependant on his wife Sybilla, an immensely popular actress. They have become distanced from each other as financial arrangements and extra marital concerns have intervened. The occasion is the funeral of Bruce’s second relation to die suddenly in recent months, but there is a lack of genuine feeling for the deceased. Bruce’s ward, Elizabeth, recounts a macabre game that she is playing with her women’s club. As the group disperses, her would be suitor receives an invitation from an older acquaintance to investigate a mysterious caller. Granville, a dedicated young journalist, discovers a sinister building where artists have worked, but the decaying edifice suggests foul play has occurred, especially as Bruce’s effects are soon discovered. It soon emerges that alibis need to be checked and identities established as no one seems above suspicion. There is room for grim comedy when the emergency doctor suggests that every casualty is important to the police, as if the doctors have no concern for their patients unless especially requested. As Chief Inspector Macdonald tries unsuccessfully to cosh himself in imitation of an incident, the doctor regrets that no film company is available.

This is a book which draws the reader in and keeps a fascination right until the end. There is no wasted time, events crowd in, and the characters jostle for attention. It flows well as the atmosphere lends credence to the events, and the threatening sinister studio almost develops into a character in its own right.  It is so engaging that it cannot be ignored, as each twist and turn succeeds another, and there is no obvious, indisputable suspect. It may be responsible for sleep deprivation accordingly! Apparently Lorac, otherwise Edith Rivett, left some seventy novels at her death in 1958, and in this volume she shows her consummate skill in both plotting and characterisation. I hope that the British Library have more of her books in their list, as this is a standout novel in their crime reprints series.

There has been a scarcity of posts over the last week as I have been visiting friends near Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds. Needless to say, I fitted in some bookshops! I bought this book and read it by Friday, so you can see just how good I thought it was… I hope to get a few more posts written soon as soon as possible as I have tracked down some really interesting crime novels from the superb selection in Heffers, Cambridge, as well as actually reading some Dean Street Press gems. Watch this space for more! We also fitted in a moving visit to the American War Cemetery, of which I hope to add a link to Northern Vicar’s blog when he writes it. As our M.A. course effectively restarts tomorrow, time may become limited. Ho hum!