During the winter of 1944, London was a distinctly dangerous place to be. The continued threat of night-time German bombing raids meant that a strict blackout was imposed across the city, leaving citizens to wander the freezing streets in the kind of pitch-black darkness and fog that serve well to mask nefarious deeds. Most people spent their nights at home, only venturing out if an air raid siren indicated the need to head to a local bomb shelter. However, despite this widespread recognition of danger, when Bruce Mallaig decided to take a late-night stroll in the park after his lady friend cancelled a date with him, he couldn’t have anticipated that he would become embroiled in a situation far more perilous and peculiar than anything the War had previously thrown at him.
Mallaig is resting on a park bench, sitting in the darkness and mulling on his somewhat disappointing romantic situation, when he becomes aware of someone moving strangely on the bridge in front of him. Although he can’t properly see what’s happening, he recognises that the person has climbed over the railing and is seemingly hiding under the bridge. Intrigued, he listens closely, wondering what’s afoot. A very short while later, he hears another person arrive on the bridge. This second individual calls out a greeting and, while apparently waiting for a third party to arrive, lights up a cigarette. Mallaig jumps to the conclusion that the person lurking under the bridge is waiting to bust up a romantic assignation between the man who is waiting on the bridge and some lady who is yet to arrive. He determines that he will go and explain the likely ambush to the man on the bridge. However, things take a far more sinister turn when Mallaig, through the glow cast by the lighted cigarette, sees a strange face appear directly behind the man on the bridge. Yet another person has apparently arrived on the scene, this time without making any noise whatsoever. There seems to be a brief scuffle and then everything goes dark again.
It soon becomes terribly clear to Mallaig that he has, albeit imperfectly, witnessed a murder. In his rush to catch the killer, he is apprehended by a passing policeman and taken in for questioning. His story is rather implausible, as is that of Stanley Clayton, the man who was lurking under the bridge while the whole thing unfolded, so it’s lucky for the pair of them that Chief Inspector MacDonald is called in to investigate the murder. Realising that it is going to be far from a standard case, MacDonald looks into the life of the victim, originally thought to be one John Ward, although he soon discovers that the murdered man was using an assumed identity. The man known as Ward was a grifter, a mooch and a black-marketeer with connections to the IRA. More than a few people were likely to want him dead, including the various members of the theatrical profession who lodged at the same boarding house as him.
Perhaps rather unusually for a Golden Age crime novel that features a policeman as the lead investigator, since the poor, bumbling police were generally eclipsed by their amateur counterparts when it came to characterisation, Murder by Matchlight sheds some interesting light on MacDonald’s youth and education, even allowing him the privilege of having well-connected friends (which is, again, something more commonly reserved for the amateur sleuth) and the kind of honest, gentlemanly persona that seems to appeal to all he meets, even some of the criminal element. MacDonald is a great character and a top-notch investigator. He wears his expertise lightly and isn’t afraid to get stuck into the more routine, perhaps even monotonous, tasks that underpin most successful investigations. His patience and his skill at reading people, coupled with his humour and general likeability, allow him to (eventually) get the truth out of the various people involved, however tangentially, in the Ward case and to deduce both the identity of the killer and the rather ingenious way in which the murder was committed.
As Martin Edwards notes in his customary and informative introduction to the book, in addition to enjoying how the mystery unfolds in Murder by Matchlight, “modern readers can also savour an atmospheric and engaging portrayal of life in London during the war.” Indeed, the setting is integral to the story, since it provides the murderer with both the means of committing the murder and the motivation for doing so, as well as adding an extra level of tension and peril to Chief Inspector MacDonald’s investigation. It’s striking to note how, as bombs fall on London in general and on Ward’s former boarding house in particular, the business of crime-solving has to take a back seat to the business of saving life and property, with police officers and murder suspects alike pitching in. The spirit of the time is certainly evoked in a highly affective way and it’s interesting to see how the various different characters respond to the realities of wartime life. Murder by Matchlight involves a very clever set up murder-wise and it’s a pleasure to follow MacDonald as he unravels the clues put in place by E.C.R. Lorac.
Unusually for a novel in the Crime Classics series, Murder by Matchlight also features a short story by Lorac, ‘Permanent Policeman’, which is included at the end of the book by way of bonus content. In it, Police Constable Dick Lind is tasked with tracking down the missing daughter of a pair of suspected poachers, although he has to rely as much on gossip from his young lady, Jenny, and his intuition as he does on evidence in order to get to the bottom of the case. It’s a nice, albeit fairly straightforward, story involving a couple of interesting characters and, although it isn’t of the same quality as the main novel, it does make for a good, quick read.
Erin Britton 4/4
Murder by Matchlight by E.C.R. Lorac
British Library Publishing 9780712352222 pbk Nov 2018