Fire in the Thatch: A Devon Mystery by ECR Lorac

When the war is over…

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The Second World War is drawing to a close when the tenancy of a piece of land complete with thatched cottage falls vacant on the estate of Colonel St Cyres, in Devon. The Colonel is determined the lease shall go to someone who shares his love of the land and who wants to work it productively. However, his daughter-in-law June has different ideas. A Londoner by birth and a party-girl by nature, June is staying with her father-in-law because her husband, the Colonel’s son, is a prisoner of war in Burma. She wants the Colonel to give the cottage to a “friend” of hers, a Mr Gressingham, who would use it as a place to entertain his (and June’s) rather decadent London friends. Fast forward a few months, and Inspector MacDonald of the Yard is on his way to investigate what might have been a case of accidental death, or possibly one of arson and murder…

Lorac wrote many Inspector MacDonald books and apparently this is the 26th in the series. I’ve only read one other of them, Bats in the Belfry, which I loved. It was published in 1937 while this one came out in 1946. What a world of difference in those two years, reflected in the tone of these two books! This one has none of the light humour and romance of the earlier book; the delightful upper-class slang is all gone. Inspector MacDonald is the same painstakingly professional detective, but with a rather more sober attitude to life, befitting a man who has spent the last several years in a bomb-ravaged London with all its attendant horrors.

What has not changed, however, is the excellent quality of the writing and plotting. Transplanting her setting from London to Devon, Lorac gives an entirely convincing picture of rural life with a real understanding of the deep connection the local farmers have with their land. While there is plenty of description of the loveliness of the landscape, she avoids romanticising country life. These are men and women who work hard to produce a livelihood from the soil and from their animals, all the more important over the last few years during war shortages. Although farming was a reserved occupation (i.e., the men were exempted from compulsory military service), Lorac shows that, as in the rest of the country, there was an absence of younger men and few families remained unscarred by the war. Lorac also touches on the subject of the refugees from London who were sent out to the country for safety, welcomed by some and resented by others.

I’m not entirely sure that the plot is fairplay – certainly I got nowhere near the solution and found the actual details of how it all happened rather convoluted. But the story is excellent and, as with all the best crime fiction, is firmly rooted in human nature. I love Inspector MacDonald as a detective – he is a thoughtful and rather kindly man, strictly moral on his own account but with the capacity to make some allowance for moral weakness in others. Here, he is an outsider sent in to the local force as an expert, but he never sets out to prove his own superiority by finding fault with them. Instead he works closely with the locals, in a spirit of comradeship and mutual trust.

The other characters are all equally well drawn. Colonel St Cyres and his daughter are the kind of gentry that make one long for an earlier age, while Gressingham and his buddies make one want to slap the nouveau riche with a wet kipper (if nothing weightier is available). The young man whom St Cyres chooses as the tenant, Nicholas Vaughan, is an ex-military man, invalided out after receiving serious injuries. June, the daughter-in-law, is nicely unlikeable. But the skill of Lorac’s writing is that these characterisations change over time, so that I found my sympathies shifting as I got to know each of them better, some improving on acquaintance, others revealing a darker side than I first suspected.

When reading these rediscovered vintage crime books, I often find myself trying to work out why some authors stay in print while others are forgotten. Sometimes it’s obvious – badly outdated attitudes and levels of snobbery that take away the pleasure for a modern reader, or plots that are firmly fixed on gadgetry or other features that relate solely to a certain time, long gone. But other times, as with Lorac, it beats me. The two books of hers that I’ve read outdo anything by Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham in plotting and quality of writing for me, and are far less snobbish and class-ridden than I find Dorothy L Sayers or even PD James. Her concentration on human nature as the foundation of her plotting makes them timeless in the way Agatha Christie’s are. Her observational skills give a real feel for what life was like in a given time and place, and she makes her “common” people as believable and sympathetic as her landowners and professional people. Her books aren’t easy to get hold of at reasonable prices, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed the British Library re-publishes more of them. I’ll be first in the queue if they do!

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

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Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac

Starring MacDonald of the Yard…

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When Bruce Attleton doesn’t turn up in Paris as planned, his friend Neil Rockingham begins to worry. A strange man called Debrette had been harrassing Attleton, so Rockingham sets another friend, young Robert Grenville, the task of tracking Debrette down. Things take a sinister turn when Grenville finds Attleton’s suticase, complete with passport, in the cellar of the Belfry – an old building where Debrette had been living until very recently. Time to bring in Inspector MacDonald of the Yard…

This is an excellent early example of the police procedural novel, mixed with just enough amateur detection from young Grenville to make it fun and to keep the authentic Golden Age feel. Grenville plays a very minor second fiddle to the professional Inspector MacDonald though, and the police methods throughout have a feeling of authenticity that is rare in my experience of early crime fiction. MacDonald doesn’t work alone – he heads a team, all allocated with different tasks and responsibilities suited to their rank, and we get a clear picture of the painstaking detection that lies behind MacDonald’s brilliance.

The plot is nicely convoluted, involving murder, possible blackmail, secrets within families, a bit of adultery, and a solution that I only got to about five pages before MacDonald revealed all. MacDonald does, at one point, make a rather unbelievable leap of intuition, but for the most part the mystery is solved by conscientious fact-checking of alibis and identities, following suspects and making good use of forensic evidence.

Challenge details:
Book: 42
Subject Heading: Capital Crimes
Publication Year: 1937

The book is based in London – one of my favourite locations for crime novels – and Lorac is wonderfully descriptive in her writing, especially in the way she highlights the ancient and modern jostling side by side in the city, with short alleys leading from offices and factories to quiet little residential squares that seem unchanged by the passing centuries. The Belfry itself is a spooky place and Lorac gets in some nice little touches of horror to tingle the reader’s spine. It is of course written in the third person past tense, as all good fiction should be. (Opinionated? Moi? 😉 ) Back in the Golden Age, most crime authors wrote well but Lorac’s writing impressed me more than most, often having quite a literary feel without ever becoming pretentious.

In the tangled networks of courts and alleys which lie between Fleet Street and Holboro, Great Turnstile and Farringdon Street, there still exist certain small houses which were built not long after the great fire of 1666. It was in one of these that Grenville had been fortunate enough to find quarters – an absurd little red-tiled house of two stories, with a grass plot in front of it and its immediate neighbours. On all sides around this ancient oasis of greenery towered enormous blocks which reverberated day and night with the roar and clatter of printing presses, of restaurant activities, with the incessant whirr of the machinery which maintains the civilisation of this bewildering epoch of ours…

As with a lot of Golden Age fiction, there’s a romantic sub-plot – young Grenville is in love with Elizabeth, Attleton’s ward. They are both fun characters – Grenville is headstrong and occasionally foolish, always putting himself in danger and often paying the price for it, while Elizabeth is a modern girl, living in her club and with a mind and a will of her own. They give the reader someone to root for amidst the rest of the other rather unpleasant characters who are assembled as victims, suspects or both. Being modern young people, they talk in a kind of slang not far removed from how Wodehouse characters speak, and this adds a nice element of humour, keeping the overall tone light. MacDonald is no slouch in the slang department too, and I loved how Lorac gave each of the major characters such distinctive voices and personalities.

I can’t begin to imagine why a book as good as this one would ever have been allowed to become “forgotten”. The British Library Crime Classics can be a bit variable in quality, but it’s finding these occasional little gems among them that makes the series so enjoyable. One of their best, and happily they’ve reissued another of Lorac’s, Fire in the Thatch, which I’m looking forward to reading soon. Highly recommended.

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

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