Murder by Matchlight

Title: Murder by Matchlight
Author: E. C. R. Lorac

London, 1945. The capital is shrouded in the darkness of the blackout, and mystery abounds in the parks after dusk.

During a stroll through Regent’s Park, Bruce Mallaig witnesses two men acting suspiciously around a footbridge. In a matter of moments, one of them has been murdered; Mallaig’s view of the assailant is but a brief glimpse of a ghastly face in the glow of a struck match.

The murderer’s noiseless approach and escape seems to defy all logic, and even the victim’s identity is quickly thrown into uncertainty. Lorac’s shrewd yet personable C.I.D. man Macdonald must set to work once again to unravel this near-impossible mystery.

Rating: a perfectly suitable match that lights things

Before I already read two novels by Lorac and I doubt picking up any more will change my opinion much: She was a fairly competent writer but also very clearly a prolific one. Which in her case means three or more books a year. There’s not much depth to her characters and no big surprises in the story line. It’s a mystery that takes you from point A – a murder – to point B – the person whodunit – without any detours.

If you don’t demand more than that, you could still do much worse than Murder by Matchlight. Because, while it doesn’t re-invent the mystery genre, it still does something somewhat unusual and sets it in London during the 2nd World War, completely with blackouts and air raids. And the rare setting isn’t just used as window dressing ; the whole plot – from motive to method – only works because of it.

So, is it a masterpiece? No. But so far it is the Lorac book, I’m most likely to recommend.

ARC received by NetGalley

E.C.R. Lorac: Fire in the Thatch

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The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon – renting a thatched cottage in the beautiful countryside at Mallory Fitzjohn. Vaughan sets to work farming the land, rearing geese and renovating the cottage. Hard work and rural peace seem to make this a happy bachelor life.

On a nearby farm lives the bored, flirtatious June St Cyres, an exile from London while her husband is a Japanese POW. June’s presence attracts fashionable visitors of dubious character and threatens to spoil Vaughan’s prized seclusion.

When Little Thatch is destroyed in a blaze, all Vaughan’s work goes up in smoke – and Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to uncover a motive for murder.

Rating: B-

It’s no part of my duty to get murdered. From the point of view of detection that’s merely making a mess of it.

In Bats in the Belfry, a lot of people repeat “Detective novels are different from real life” and how a real murder isn’t the fun puzzle mystery novels make it out to be. It comes over as very condescending and didn’t work for me at all. In Fire in the Thatch people also exclaim “this isn’t a detective novel” but they do so as a reaction to one character suggesting that the body that was burned beyond recognition in the fire might not have been the tenant of the thatch. That was in all likelihood also the thought most experienced mystery-readers had. Unrecognisable bodies are always suspicious. But now? Is this really a detective novel that’s not like the other detective novels? Or is it a bluff?

Inspector Macdonald has his own opinion on this question. And a few other ideas about what is and isn’t important in this investigation. Admittedly, he’s rather quick to make these decisions and dismisses some clues for no discernible reason but it is a rather short book (by a very prolific writer). Besides Macdonald’s character makes up for much of this. He’s no genius eccentric or laugh-out-loud funny guy but he has a dry humour that makes for very enjoyable reading.

The setting also adds some unusual elements: not many mysteries are set mid-World War II. And while the location – rural Devon – doesn’t suffer from bombings like London or other big cities, the war has many indirect effects on the people (and the plot), which makes a nice change to many of the murders committed country-houses that are frozen in time and have nearly no connection to the outside world.

ARC received from NetGalley

E.C.R. Lorac: Bats in the Belfry

E.C.R. Lorac: Bats in the Belfry CoverTitle: Bats in the Belfry
Author: E.C.R. Lorac
Series: Inspector Macdonald #15

Bruce Attleton dazzled London s literary scene with his first two novels but his early promise did not bear fruit. His wife Sybilla is a glittering actress, unforgiving of Bruce s failure, and the couple lead separate lives in their house at Regent s Park. When Bruce is called away on a sudden trip to Paris, he vanishes completely until his suitcase and passport are found in a sinister artist’s studio, the Belfry, in a crumbling house in Notting Hill. Inspector Macdonald must uncover Bruce s secrets, and find out the identity of his mysterious blackmailer. 

RatingC-

I like detective stories myself, they make me laugh, whereas real crime isn’t funny.

An alternate title for this book could be PSA: Don’t solve your own crimes at home because it really drives that point home. Early in the book Greenville and Rockingham, two friends of the missing man, discover his suitcase with his passport. Rockingham immediately declares “I’m a law-abiding man, not one of those half-baked fools who think criminal investigation is the province of the amateur.” and demands that they call the police. After they do this and Inspector Macdonald is on the case he makes it clear that he wants “no Sherlocking around”. And while Greenville does at first do some Sherlocking, he soon discovers “that there wasn’t any glamour about a murder case in which you knew the parties involved.”

The author spends a lot of time patting herself on the shoulder and saying “Look how much more realistic my stories are than those of those other writers who let lords or old ladies with no police experience solve cases!” And yes, in real life amateurs shouldn’t try to solve cases on their own. The thing is, in real life, there are also far fewer murderers whose plan to get the inheritance quicker/rid of the unfaithful husband/rid of their lover’s inconvenient partner involves carefully planned quadruple-bluffs. But that’s exactly what the murderer in Bats in the Belfry does. And he does it well. The mystery is cleverly crafted and doesn’t require a ridiculous amount of coincidences to work. It’s a shame that this got overshadowed by the author’s condescending attitude.

Otherwise, Inspector Macdonald is a character that is interesting without sliding too much into the quirky-for-the-sake-of-quirkiness field. When he doesn’t complain about amateurs meddling in police-work he is quite funny and not some genius asshole who insults everyone who disagrees with him. But sadly, we don’t get to see too much of Macdonald in this book since a lot of the plot focusses on the people involved in the crime and they are at best bland and at worst annoying. It shows that Lorac was a very prolific writer who wrote several books per year. While the mystery is good and definitely not formulaic, the characters are rather one-dimensional.

ARC received from NetGalley