British mystery writer E. C. R. Lorac wrote an impressive 48 novels, and another 23 under her second pen-name, Carol Carnac. The Lorac books usually feature her main series character, Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald, who stars in this title.
Murder by Matchlight was the 27th Lorac novel, published in 1945 (set in 1944), and is an atmospheric portrait of London at war.
We open in Regents Park during the blackout. Bruce Mallaig, having been let down by his girlfriend, is out for a quiet walk in the darkness. Sitting down on a park bench to contemplate his life, he witnesses a murder on a nearby bridge. By chance, the victim is lighting a match at the exact moment of his demise, affording Mallaig a glimpse of his mysterious assailant.
Thinking back he seemed grotesquely tall. You see I only saw his face. He must have had a dark coat fastened right up to his chin and something like a dark beret on his head: the only thing that caught the light was the face – fleshy and dark with rather bulging cheeks and very black eyebrows.
Reminiscent of The Hollow Man… Anyway, Mallaig leaps into action and manages to catch a man called Stanley Claydon at the scene, but Claydon denies (almost) all knowledge of the deceased and is released by the authorities.
Inspector Macdonald, who catches the case, believes the answer lies in the dead man’s past, and soon begins to uncover the life history of ‘John Ward’, a scrounger, petty conman, blackmailer, and small-time bad-egg. A pretty deserving case for murder, opines one of Macdonald’s colleagues, but Macdonald tells him off:
‘I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – just as soon as society tolerates private vengeance, that society is allying itself to Nazism and opening an avenue for every abuse which exists.’
One strand of the investigation focuses on the residents of the victim’s building, including a conjurer with a strong work-ethic and amazing strength, an antiques expert, and some theatrical types. But meanwhile, there were others at the scene who merit investigation, including a Civil Defence man and the passing doctor who attended the body. Plenty of suspects to eliminate, but no motives leap out at Macdonald.
We are definitely in London at war here. The blackout is in full effect, everyone has tragedies to share, and the policeman’s daily round is complicated by bombed-out buildings, missing identity cards, and witnesses who have been shipped out to Burma.
‘Funny thing – that street survived all through the ’40-’41 blitz – never touched. Then on the night of February 10th a load of incendiaries came down on it. We got everybody out and put them in the big surface shelter at the end there – and then a big H. E. hit the shelter. Shocking business. Sheer bad luck.’
Macdonald nodded. ‘All that,’ he said. ‘Some of them survive?’
‘Oh yes, a surprising number. My God! I shan’t forget going in there with the Rescue Squad … Some things you can’t forget.’
‘I know,’ said Macdonald, and for a few seconds they both stood in silence.
At a crucial point in the story, the main characters are endangered by an incendiary device and Macdonald conducts interviews in the fear and chaos of a raid.
Drenched with water from the hoses, filthy, torn, Mr Rameses stood in a fire-drenched room amid the reek of soaked charred furniture […] He turned to the window, from which glass and black-out had long since gone and stared out at the flickering skies, where a grim light shone on the under sides of the barrage balloons.
All atmospheric stuff, and the story is good too. The investigation is satisfyingly paced – what I thought was a disappointingly weak plot-point which undermined the plotting turned out not to be – and both Macdonald and the cast of suspects are nicely rounded characters. Well worth a read.
Thanks to Dover Classics for a review copy of Murder by Matchlight – the result of my first foray into Netgalley.
Murder by Matchlight
E. C. R. Lorac
First published in the UK 1945, by Collins Crime Club
This edition Dover Publications, 2003
160 pages in print