Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac

If in doubt, cosy crime…. I spent quite a number of hours reading the Owen Hatherley book, which I really enjoyed, but I felt in need of something a bit different. Hence, I suppose, a quick rummage in the pile of British Library Crime Classics waiting to be read and reviewed! I settled for this one because I enjoyed Lorac’s short story in the collection “The Christmas Card Crime” so much; and also I think because Harriet rated it so highly in her review. I wasn’t disappointed!

E.C.R. Lorac was the pen-name used by Edith Caroline Rivett, and she also wrote under the name of Carol Carnac. Astonishingly, despite the fact that she was a prolific writer of Golden Age crime, and a member of the Detection Club, her work has been all but forgotten until its recent revival by the BLCC imprint – so more kudos for them. Her regular detective was Inspector Macdonald, who features in this story, and as the introduction by Martin Edwards makes clear, “Murder by Matchlight” was considered one of her best; it’s received considerable praise in other reviews I’ve read, even by BLCC standards, and it’s not hard to see why…

London was silent, with a silence which had no quality of peacefulness: in its shroud of darkness the place seemed tense, uneasy, as if it were waiting for the first banshee held of sirens which seemed a fitting accompaniment to the listening darkness.

“Murder by Matchlight” was first published in 1945 and is firmly set during the Second World War. We are in a world of ration cards and the black market; the black-out and air raids; and as the story opens a young man called Bruce Mallaig is walking in Regent’s Park in the dark, a place he can now get access to at night because the railings have been taken away to use for munitions. Having been stood up for a date, he’s in a morose mood; however, his mood is about to worsen as he witness an apparently impossible murder. A man on a bridge is killed, apparently by someone whose face materialises briefly in the light of a match. However, someone else was under the bridge and heard no other footsteps; and there are no more footprints.

Fortunately, Chief Inspector Macdonald is on hand to investigate, and a visit to the murdered man’s lodgings reveals a colourful array of potential suspects, most notably Mr. and Mrs. Rameses, a magical act. However, there is another possible connection to the murdered man’s past in Ireland, where he fought for Sinn Fein; and also to the film industry at Denham, where he gained occasional work. It’s a clever, twisty mystery that takes all of Macdonald’s ingenuity to sort out. And I confess to being completely misled (which I do love in a GA Crime Novel!). At times I thought I was a step ahead of Lorac and Macdonald, only to be regularly wrongfooted, and I only really started to get an inkling when the book got close to its big reveal. The end was ingenious and satisfying, leaving me wanting more of both Lorac’s writing and the characters she created. I particularly adored the Rameses’, and her description of Macdonald’s first encounter with the lady of the couple is priceless!

They lived in the flat on the first floor and the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce-coloured, wadded silk dressing up-gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements, for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

However, despite it being an excellent and readable mystery, where “Murder…” really scores is in its setting and atmosphere. The further away we get from the Second World War, the harder it is for us to imagine what it was to live through those days and those events. We’re fairly unused to conflicts taking place on our little island, and it does us good to be reminded, I think. Lorac doesn’t shy away from any of this, and cleverly builds the events happening in London (a dramatic bombing raid, the people involved and how they react) into her story. She also inserts at several points comment on the fact that justice must be seen to be done, whatever else is happening in the world. The murder victim is not a particularly nice person, one the world is probably better without. Yet when Macdonald is taken to task for worrying about who killed him while the world is going to hell in a handcart, he equates allowing a murderer to get away killing to allying oneself to Nazism. It’s a powerful message, even more so as it was written while the conflict was taking place.

(Macdonald) had an uncomfortable feeling that his lungs were still full of smoke: the reek of last night’s fire seem to hang about him. Then he realised that a thick fog brooded over London and he wished for a moment that he was anywhere else in the world – anywhere, away from fog and bombs and barrage and shelters and demolitions and all the rest of it.

So “Murder by Matchlight” is a punchy and powerful addition to the BLCC list (and now I’m keen to read her other titles too!) This book comes with a lovely little extra in the form of a rarely seen short story by Lorac, which is extremely satisfying. I’m so glad I followed my instincts and picked this book up right now; it was the perfect read for a cold and gloomy January, and I find myself wondering quite how we lovers of classic crime got by before the British Library started bringing out these rather wonderful books… 😉

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!