Checkmate to Murder (Inspector MacDonald 25) by ECR Lorac

Keep Calm and Carry On!

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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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Fell Murder (Inspector MacDonald 24) by ECR Lorac

Rural but not an idyll…

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Old Robert Garth rules his family with a rod of iron and, although he’s a fair landlord, he stands no nonsense from the tenant farmers on his land. A man who, in his eighties, still can put in a long day’s physical work, he has no time for those he sees as weaklings. So when he’s found murdered, there are plenty of people who might have done the foul deed, each with differing motives. But when it’s discovered that his eldest and long-estranged son, Richard, has been seen around the district, he naturally becomes the prime suspect. It’s up to Inspector MacDonald, called in from Scotland Yard to help the overstretched local police, to find Richard, and to decide whether he, or some other person, is the guilty party…

One of ECR Lorac’s greatest strengths is the way she makes her settings central to her stories, whether in the alleys of London or, as in this case, in the farming community of the Lune Valley, a place she apparently knew well. Her descriptions of the landscape are wonderful, showing the rugged beauty of the dales and fells, the unpredictable weather and the way the land has been shaped and formed by the generations who have farmed it. She is clear-eyed about the hard labour involved in farming but shows her characters as having a strong bond to their land and a love of their way of life.

Set towards the end of the Second World War, she also gives us intriguing glimpses of how war affected farming, partly by removing so many men from the labour force and bringing more women on to the land, and partly through government pressure to adopt more intensified farming methods, such as ploughing up traditional pasture land to allow for more planting of vegetable crops to feed a hungry populace no longer able to import food as easily as before the war. She shows too the additional tasks that have fallen on the police to oversee the new war-time regulations – black-out rules, rationing of goods and petrol, licensing and control of all kinds of things that used to be left up to suppliers and consumers – all leaving them under pressure when required to investigate the normal criminal activities that continue regardless of war.

The local Superintendent is a townie with little understanding of the ways of the farmers and a kind of disdain for them, and so he hits a brick wall in getting them to talk openly to him. But Inspector MacDonald is a different breed – he may be a London policeman now, but he’s a Scot by birth and has lived in rural communities before. He understands the land and secretly rather wishes he could take up farming himself. This all helps him to find ways to break down the rural resistance to outsiders and to grasp at motives that a townsman may not think of. It’s not long before he has a good idea of what happened to old Garth – now all he has to do is prove it.

Another excellent entry in the series – of the ones I’ve read so far, I find the books written around the time of WW2 seem to show her at the peak of her considerable talent in terms of plotting and, while I have enjoyed all of her settings, especially wartime London in Murder by Matchlight, the countryside ones always impress me with their affectionate but entirely unromanticised portrayals of rural communities.

As a little bonus, there’s an extra short story at the end of the volume, Live Wire. It’s only a few pages long – a tale of a criminal attempting to steal gold bullion from a train – but it’s very well done, darkly funny and highly entertaining, with a deliciously twisted ending. I usually forget to mention that there’s quite often a short story tucked in at the end of the BL releases, I assume when the page count of the novel is slightly shorter than the norm. It’s a bit like finding there’s still one chocolate left in the box when you think you’ve already eaten them all…

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

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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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