Checkmate to Murder by E.C.R. Lorac
A 1944 novel written with heavy fog, blackouts and blitz in the background, this is a murder mystery which is full of background atmosphere in all respects. This novel has happily been republished in the British Library Crime Classics and is another prized book by the successful and excellent Caroline Rivett who also wrote as Carol Carnac. The helpful Introduction written by Martin Edwards tells of Lorac’s war experience which featured her sadness at her friends’ being “bombed or burnt out of their homes”. This first hand observation lends so much credibility to a novel in which dense fog and the need to check the effectiveness of the blackout on a building are central to the facts of the novel, as well as the atmosphere of threat and excitement brought by the presence of a special constable and an off duty soldier. Uncertainty is at the heart of a clever mystery surrounding the brutal murder of an old man who seems to have been a miser in an essentially secret way. The characters, or suspects as it emerges in this clever and atmospheric novel, are variously described and expanded on in terms of dialogue, as their voices and speeches are presented in a lively way. Lorac’s clever and thoughtful Inspector Macdonald appears alongside his colleagues , Detectives Ward and Reeves, in a thorough investigation via dogged pursuit of everyone who may have relevant knowledge. This is such a good read and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book.
The novel begins as Lorac sets the scene in an artist’s studio, lit in a specific way to allow the activities to continue despite the darkness and fog outside. At one end an artist, Bruce Manaton, paints a portrait of his model, an actor dressed in borrowed robes. Andre Delaunier is splendidly arrayed as a Spanish Cardinal, a memorable if bored sitter. At the other end two men, two respectable men sit absorbed in a game of chess. Robert Cavendish and Ian Mackellon are both respectable government employees, brought together by a love of chess. Meanwhile, Rosanne Manaton, sister of the rather temperamental artist, is constructing a meal for those present from rations, as well as providing tea for a charlady who has been looking after their landlord who lives next door, the elderly Mr Folliner. When the door bursts open to admit an officious special constable dragging an injured young soldier the assembled group offer assistance, but the unpleasant man tells them a crime has been committed nearby and it is their duty to supply a lock up room to detain the young man while he bustles off to contact his police headquarters. They agree to take care of him while the message is passed on, though Rosanne feels sorry for the young man who has wrenched his ankle. It is the beginning of an investigation that will test the deductive powers of Macdonald and his men, as well as inquiring into many people both present and absent in the area that night.
This is a clever and ultimately satisfying novel which contains effective descriptions of the atmosphere and setting in a run down part of London during wartime. The characters are so well realised, from the major actors to the peripheral people who supply the small clues and red herrings central to a sophisticated and successful mystery. The detection is both logical and consistent. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to those who enjoy murder mysteries and atmospheric wartime novels.
So this is another great read from the British Library Crime Classics series, and from the fascinating Second World War period which brings to life the weariness of London life. Whether writing as ECR Lorac or Carol Carnac, she wrote books which were clever and challenging entertainment which we can still appreciate today- especially in the Classics series.