Checkmate to Murder (Inspector MacDonald 25) by ECR Lorac

Keep Calm and Carry On!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s wartime London and a thick fog is making the darkness of the blackout even deeper. A perfect night for murder! Four men are together in an artist’s studio. Bruce Manaton, the artist, is working on a portrait of his friend, actor André Delaunier, dressed for the sitting in the scarlet robes of a Cardinal. Meantime two other men, Robert Cavenish and Ian Mackellon, are absorbed in a game of chess. Each couple is in a pool of light while the rest of the studio is in shadow. In the kitchen off the studio, Bruce’s sister, Rosanne, is preparing a meal (because she’s the woman, obviously). Suddenly into this quiet scene bursts the local Special Constable, clutching a young soldier whom he claims has just murdered the old miser who lives next door. But when Inspector MacDonald of the Yard begins to investigate, he’s not convinced it’s as simple a case as it first appears…

ECR Lorac has been one of the major successes of the British Library Crime Classics series as far as I’m concerned, and I guess I’m not alone since they’ve now republished several of the Inspector MacDonald books, as well as a standalone written under another of her pen names, Carol Carnac. One of her real strengths is her settings, and her wartime ones are particularly atmospheric. Here she uses the combination of fog and blackout brilliantly, not just to provide a cloak for nefarious goings-on, but also to conjure up a sense of what it was like to be living in a London still struggling stoically on under the constant threat of air raids.

The worst of the Blitz is over, but the memories of the bombings are still fresh. So much so, that, as Bruce later explains to Inspector MacDonald “Londoners have heard so many bangs during their recent history, that a pistol shot isn’t so impressive a row as it used to be.” This, together with the random blasts of fog horns, means that the group in the studio didn’t consciously hear the shot that killed old Mr Folliner.

Through patient police work, MacDonald and his team soon have reason to doubt that the young soldier, who, it turns out, is Mr Folliner’s nephew, is the murderer, although he was found by the Special Constable in the old man’s bedroom with the corpse. But if he’s innocent, then who did the deed? The list of suspects is small, and it seems almost impossible that anyone in the vicinity at the time could have done it. MacDonald will have to work out not only whodunit, but how.

It’s a good puzzle, with some of the elements of the “impossible crime” about it, though I find it impossible myself to explain why without giving mild spoilers, so I won’t. The characterisation is very good, with Bruce and Rosanne Manaton particularly well developed. Bruce is talented, but he’s moody and selfish, and Rosanne acts almost as much as a mother to him as a sister. People aren’t spending much on art during the war, so Rosanne struggles to make ends meet and stop Bruce blowing what little money they do have on drink. She too is a talented artist, but Bruce kindly lets her sacrifice her own career so that she can do all the cooking and cleaning and worrying for them both.

We also get to know Inspector MacDonald a little better, though his life outside work is still largely a blank. I like that he never works alone – Lorac always makes us aware of the teamwork that is going on in the background to support his detecting, and gives them full credit for their contribution. As used to be the case in those halcyon days (in fiction), the police team work well together, efficiently, professionally and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Another great read from Lorac’s pen – I remain baffled as to why she is less well known than the other Golden Age Queens of Crime and am very glad that the BL is doing such a great job in changing that.

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

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39 thoughts on “Checkmate to Murder (Inspector MacDonald 25) by ECR Lorac

    • She’s been one of the real finds of the British Library Crime Classics series for me. I’ve loved all the ones they’ve published so far, but Murder by Matchlight is my favourite – another one set during the blackouts, and she really brings London of the Blitz to life… 😀

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  1. I really have enjoyed the Loracs I’ve read, FictionFan, not least because of the way she evokes setting, place and time. And I do have a very soft spot for one of those ‘howdunit’ puzzles, whether or not they count as ‘impossible’ crimes. I like the good inspector’s character, too. We learn about him, but the series isn’t overburdened with his personal life. Glad to hear this one worked well for you.

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    • It’s her settings I love most too, especially her wartime ones – for me, that’s when she seemed to be at her peak. The howdunit aspect in this one is fun – the who is a bit easier to guess at, but the how is baffling! I hope you enjoy it when you get a chance to read it!

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    • Lorac is definitely my top favourite of the authors so far, and Murder by Matchlight is the one I’ve loved best so far. But that long promised list of my top ten recommendations should be arriving very soon now – tomorrow, if I get my act together and draft the post! 😀 I don’t know why some of them seem to have disappeared. For me, Lorac is far superior to Margery Allingham, for instance, and yet Allingham’s never gone out of print. I wonder if it just depends on which ones the TV companies chose to televise?

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  2. I’m surprised that Bruce isn’t the one who winds up dead with Rosanne standing over him with a gun in her hand or from poison placed in his food. Anyway, sounds great! You are on a roll with these books! Good-bye reading slump!

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    • Haha, did you pick up on the fact that Bruce wasn’t my favourite person, then? 😉 Sadly, these are all books I read ages ago – I’ll be running out of reviews very soon. May have to start videoing myself recreating Hollywood dance routines to fill up the empty spaces… 😂

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    • Not a huge role, but enough to make it fun for a chess fan, I’d think! I love chess too but I’m so bad at it! Being beaten by a ten-year-old in four moves is one of my most traumatic memories… 😉

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    • I’ve loved a lot of the authors the BL has reintroduced, but Lorac is the top star – she maybe doesn’t equal Christie (who does?) but she’s up there with anyone else in the field. Hope you enjoy her if you get a chance to sample her sometime.

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    • I’ve read a few of her books now and have found them consistently good – her settings especially are so well done, and yes, her female characters are much fuller than the men often made them.

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  3. This reminds me I have another of hers waiting in my Kindle. So many books piling up!

    Of course, if they’d been dining in a fancy restaurant, the chef would have been a man.

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  4. Isn’t it strange the way some writers have remained popular, while others have faided into comparrative obscurity? I had never heard of Lorack at all till you started reviewing her, but I’ve seen a few mentions of her novels on other blogs recently, and the Brittish Library are obviously keen to revive her work. I’m glad this was another 5 star read for you, at least you are still able to enjoy Vintage Crime fiction.

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    • I know, I don’t understand it. While I’ve yet to find another Christie among these ones that are being resurrected, I do think Lorac is up there among all the rest. For my money, she’s better than Margery Allingham, for instance, and yet Allingham’s never been out of print. I wonder if it simply depends on which ones were turned into TV detectives back in the 50s and 60s? Thank goodness for all the vintage stuff – crime, horror and sci-fi. They’re about the only things I’m really enjoying at the moment.

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  5. It’s interesting, I can’t recall many mysteries that really focus on police working as a team, that seems very rare. The detective always seems to take the spotlight, and anyone else assisting him just comes in and out, typically bumbling things up in the meantime.

    I’m so grateful you’ve introduced me to Lorac! When I finally get the time to dive into the classics, I’ll start with her, because Agatha Christie has enough admirers as it is.

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    • I think the individual ‘tec ones were televised more often, like Poirot and Wimsey, and so they’re the ones that get remembered. I’ve been quite surprised at how many police procedurals there were back in the Golden Age – I always thought it was a more recent development. Haha, I do think Lorac is great, but Christie will always be the Queen! 😀

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  6. I have enjoyed the two Loracs I’ve read and there are another three in the library I’ve yet to read. Unfortunately this one isn’t one of them, but this setting – WW2, London fog – really appeals, so I’ll have to request them to purchase it I think.

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    • It’s sad to think of all the excellent authors who must have faded into obscurity through what seems to just be chance. Glad so many publishers are now seeking out some of the best of them… 😀

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