Last week was a strange one here in the UK: appointment of a new head of government followed quickly by the death of our head of state. I’m in two minds about the monarchy as an institution; like most Brits across nearly all demographics and political viewpoints, though, I did like the queen and losing her as a figurehead is discombobulating. Besides, it’s unsettling to have both head of state and head of government change so rapidly. When the news first broke, I was reading Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle, and enjoying it very much – but it requires quite a lot of concentration as there are many viewpoints, and also it’s about death and grief. Given that news about death and grief is currently inescapable in the UK, I put it aside for a bit to read something easier. Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac proved just the ticket.
Murder by Matchlight is, I think, my second novel by ECR Lorac – the first was Checkmate to Murder, which I never got around to reviewing, though I enjoyed it very much. I think it’s generally believed that Lorac’s WWII mysteries are her best work; unlike a lot of her contemporaries, she made good use of the war setting to complicate her mysteries. That’s certainly the case in Checkmate to Murder, which capitalises on the blackout to complicate matters. It’s even better here, where both the blackout and the London Blitz are used to great effect. One night, a young man gets stood up by his date, whose leave from the WAAF has been cancelled at short notice. He decides to wander through the pitch-black Regent’s Park to muse on his romantic sorrows, and while doing so, he witnesses a man being knocked over the head – but all he can see it’s what’s briefly illuminated as the victim lights his cigarette. He grabs the man who was on the bridge with the victim, and shouts for the police, but there is very little he can give them to go on beyond that split-second view in the matchlight.
The victim’s identity card names him as John Ward, a jack-of-all-trades who lived in a rather ramshackle boarding house in an area heavily affected by the Blitz. This is the type of murder mystery where the investigation is much more about the victim’s life, and identifying who could have a motive, than piecing together clues from the day of the crime. This allows for something closer to a psychological mystery than a puzzle. That’s more to my personal liking, but it would probably be frustrating if you are someone who likes to try and solve it before the detective. There are clues, but that’s not the point of the book. Instead, it’s really about the characters and setting, with the other residents of the boarding house especially well fleshed-out. Unfortunately, because a novel like this is so dependent on its characters for the mystery, I can’t get into too much detail about how – but I think I can at least say that Inspector Macdonald, who is the primary investigator, is a pleasure to follow around. He has an interesting but imperfect viewpoint, which is really what you want in a detective story.
As well as the characters, the setting is also well-drawn. In many ways, the novel is about how the Blitz has affected everyone who lives in London at the time, whether they staunchly stick it out, flee at the first sign of an air-raid siren, or something in between. You can feel both the fear of the raids and the various ways the characters cope with that fear. It’s a fascinating study of the effect that war had on people – and if it wasn’t for the fact that the murder gets solved at the end, I’m not sure it actually would count as escapist reading. Even so, I’m not sure every loose end is properly tied up. There are a few plotholes that are never quite resolved, including one that irritated me enough that I was still thinking about it as I wrote this review (I won’t say what it is for spoiler reasons). Still, I found the ending of the story satisfying overall, and look forward to reading more of Lorac’s work. Her next novel, Fire in the Thatch, is on offer for Kindle at the moment, so I suspect I will be picking it up sooner rather than later!