Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

Maybe it’s because they are Londoners…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s a cold winter in London during World War 2, with the blackout in full force and the population living with the constant spectre of bombing raids. One night, young Bruce Mallaig is sitting on a bench in Regent’s Park thinking romantic thoughts of the girl he loves, when he sees – or mostly hears due to the pitch darkness – two men near the little footbridge, one on the bridge, the other standing below it. While he ponders what they might be up to, the man on the bridge lights a match and Mallaig catches a glimpse of a face looming behind him. The match goes out and there’s a thud as of someone falling. By the time Mallaig fumbles his torch alight, the man on the bridge is dead…

Of course, this is the story he tells the police, but is it true? There was another witness too, the man under the bridge, whose story sounds less likely but possible. Inspector MacDonald of the Yard will have to decide if either of these witness could have done the deed, or had a fourth person been there in the darkness, unseen except for that brief glimpse Mallaig caught in the matchlight? But first MacDonald will have to identify the victim before he can try to discover the motive for the crime.

This is the third of ECR Lorac’s books that the British Library has re-issued and she’s now become one of my firm favourites. MacDonald is a likeable detective – a moral man but with the ability to make allowances for the moral weaknesses of others. He’s thoughtful and kind, Oxford-educated but doesn’t live in an ivory tower. He’s as likely to go to see the latest variety show at the music-hall as to attend the newest production of Shakespeare, and this stands him in good stead in this investigation, since it soon turns out the victim lived in a boarding-house full of variety performers.

The plot is very good, with plenty of motives to provide red herrings, and an investigation that relies on MacDonald getting to the truth the old-fashioned way – by interviewing the various suspects both formally and informally, while his team carry out the painstaking work of checking alibis and tracking people’s movements. That’s one of the things I like most about these books – Lorac makes it clear that policing is a team sport. While MacDonald has the intuition and insight to make assumptions about who might be lying or telling the truth, he relies on his hard-working and competent subordinates to get the evidence to support or negate his theories.

One of Lorac’s chief skills is in developing her settings with a great feeling of authenticity. This one takes us to the heart of the capital city during the bombings, and gives a wonderful depiction of the dogged Londoners picking themselves up and carrying on, with the kind of defiant resilience that was the hallmark of London’s (and Britain’s) war-time attitude. But she doesn’t shy away from showing that this spirit wasn’t universal – many people were scared, while some took advantage of the confusion caused by the destruction in less than legal ways. In fact, Lorac uses this confusion as part of her plot and gives a real picture of the bombed out areas of the city and the disruption which that caused, with people dispersed from their old communities so that suddenly neighbours no longer knew neighbours in the way they had before the war, allowing the unscrupulous to “disappear” into new lives, even new identities.

I also love her characterisation. The most vivid characters here are the variety performers, and as you would expect they can be a bit larger than life, and their quirky skills again play a part in the plotting. She doesn’t overdo it, though, so they still feel credible. But it’s the “ordinary” people she does so well – the old caretaker who looks after the boarding-house and does a bit of cleaning on the side, Mallaig, MacDonald’s subordinates. This is back in the period when authors used to assume that people who weren’t the baddies were good, and this is emphasised more here because, published in 1945, consciously or unconsciously it plays into the story Londoners told themselves to keep their chins up in the face of adversity: a story of plucky cheerfulness, neighbourliness and acts of heroism – a story they told so convincingly it became their reality. A heinous crime has been committed, with a motivation that might feel somewhat out-dated now, but would have resonated strongly at the time. But, despite the crime and the bombs, all will be well because London and Londoners will never allow Hitler the satisfaction of thinking he can give more than they can take. And with men like MacDonald in charge, London is in safe hands.

London 1944 – fighting Hitler one cuppa tea at a time…

Strong plot, good characterisation, plenty of mild humour to lift the tone – all-in-all, an excellent read that gives a real insight into the war on the Home Front, and the patriotic spirit that carried London through. Great stuff!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

29 thoughts on “Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac

  1. This one was already on my wishlist, FictionFan, and mostly because of Lorac’s ability to create an authentic sense of place and context, as well as her wit. And, honestly, I’m looking forward to that boarding house with variety performers. What a great cast of characters that must be! So glad you enjoyed this as much as you did.

    • I’m so hoping the BL keeps going with her – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three and would find it hard to pick a favourite because all the settings have been so different so far. This one feels completely right, and has a good mystery too. Hope you enjoy it! 😀

    • This is one of the best I’ve read because the plot is so relevant to the setting, though I’ll leave that vague for fear of spoilers. But her depiction of London during the bombings feels completely authentic… enjoy! 😀

  2. I love when the realities of police work are explored. There is nothing I hate more in a book than when someone has a feeling or a hunch and goes with it and (surprise surprise) is right.

    • I do, too, and I love when it’s shown that there’s a whole team at work rather than just one brilliant detective. Inspector MacDonald doesn’t have a regular sidekick, but we always get to know what his colleagues have contributed… 😀

  3. Oh, wow, that picture of the woman drinking tea is breathtaking.

    When I watch movies with detectives, I’m hyper-aware that there’s always a lone detective who works well with no one. I’ve never thought about it much in fiction, possibly because in movies we see everyone from the outside–and from the outside, someone who doesn’t cooperate always looks like a jerk.

    • It’s a great photo, isn’t it? I wonder who she was and what happened to her.

      I read lots of books where you’d think there was only one person working a murder case and they always seem to go for days without sleep. I always feel like telling them to delegate! I understand why writers do it and I’m not suggesting they should make everything 100% authentic since that would be extremely dull, but an acknowledgement of the rest of the team would be good…

  4. I find it so fascinating to learn about how differently people reacted to the World Wars. These small details, that really can only be found (authentically) in older books are such a window into what is such a difficult time to relate to. I love that these details make up minor subplots in a work of genre fiction…

    • This one rang completely true to me and made me wonder why we all read so much historical fiction instead of picking up books written by people who were actually there. Research can never be the same as actually experiencing a thing…

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