Back when E.C.R. Lorac was a semi-forgotten also-ran, I snapped up this Dover Press reissue before I figured the book would vanish into oblivion, hoping I’d smartly acquired an obscure gem. Skip forward a mere couple of years and the British Library Crime Classics series continues its exemplary work in reviving a wide range of authors and texts, and Murder by Matchlight (1945) has been dragged from its dusty and semi-overlooked corner into the full glare of publicity. Goddamn it, there goes half my retirement plan; oh, well, fingers crossed that the bottom doesn’t fall out of the fidget spinner market any time soon…
I think I shall have to take a little break from Lorac after this. She and I got off to a good start with the likes of The Devil and the C.I.D. (1938) and Case in the Clinic (1941), but more recently we seem to’ve hit the skids. This, as is becoming the tendency with her work for me, starts out intriguing — she has a great imagination at times, finding new wrinkles on what was, by the time her career started, probably already starting to become a little repetitive in the genre — but there’s also a real air of sameyness creeping into these books. It seems that her narratives nearly always end up focussing on the denizens of a tightly-packed boarding house where the suspicion ends up falling and, sure, this could be a comment on the nature of post-war living conditions and the emergence of the working classes, but its also a well she seems to’ve gone back to again and again. When Macdonald started interviewing the others who shared lodgings with her victim I got a sense of deja vu so strong I thought someone had uploaded a long-overdue Windows NT upgrade to the Matrix.
It is also dull; good grief, is it ever dull.
In late-WW2 London, a young man overhears (and semi-sees) a murder one evening in Regents Park — the victim waiting in the dark, unaware of the presence of the ‘witness’, lights a match for a cigarette and, in the flash of light that illuminates him, a face looms up for a second before the sound of a sharp contact and the falling of a heavy object. It’s a great hook, and a lovely way to present a crime, but in fact this intriguingly uncommon witnessing of the killer proves to be immaterial: it’s obviously murder, and it’s a slew of physical clues that put Inspector Robert Macdonald on the track of his guilty party…so, beyond a striking visual, it’s difficult to see what this aspect of it adds. And perhaps it’s just me, but once it became clear that this element was all for aught it seemed that too many other inconsequential aspects were also crowding the narrative for me to really enjoy it.
What kills me here is the interviews. Oh, dear sweet heaven have mercy and save me from these interminable interviews. Lorac has no way to communicate relevant information except for a policeman to ask for it and a witness to provide it, sometimes after much hilarious application of phonetic speech and complaining to show us what a character that character is. Then Macdonald interviews someone else. Then perhaps another policeman interviews another someone else. And then these two policemen get together and recount the contents of their interviews and decide that what the investigation really needs is for someone to interview someone they’ve probably already interviewed. Then Lorac realises she’s writing a series of dull interviews, has an air raid occur in the middle of one of them, and then it’s back to more interviews with zero real engagement.
And I wouldn’t mind — well, I’d mind less — if there was any sense of how they contribute to the overall shape of the investigation. Say what you like about Freeman Wills Crofts, for example, but when he conducts a rigorous questioning or testing of a part of a case, you know exactly what is gleaned from that test. I read the explanation of this three times and still have no idea how Macdonald put it together from what he’s told. What was all that stuff about the film studio? And why does everyone keep happening to bump into each other again and again? Coincidence is one thing, but these five people happening across each other at luncheon or while at school or whenever they all meet is just insane; why is this acceptable? And, come to that, what was the motive for the murder in the first place? “Evidence without ideas is more valuable than ideas without evidence” Macdonald cautions at one point and, had I been drinking a cup of fashionably-obscure coffee, I’d’ve spat it out in a comical way upon reading that if I knew how this narrative ties up. No, that doesn’t make sense. But, in fairness, neither does this book.
There’s a glorious moment of levity in Macdonald deliberately answering his chief’s rhetorical questions literally so as to play up to the perception of The Scot in England, but outside of that I cannot recommend a single aspect of this book. If the murderer had just shut up, for one thing, that would have helped their cause immensely, and please let’s not have yet another wearyingly predictable dissection of the ignorant attitudes of racism and xenophobia in novels of this era without considering the tar-dripping brush of the “illogical, rebellious, thriftless lying habits” which is swept across the “Southern Irish type” herein. And why was…that person…in that room during the air strike? Even Macdonald can’t imagine, and he’s able to conjure up a murderer from fairy dust. And, seriously, what was the motive for the murder?
Of the six Lorac books I’ve read to date, I’d rank this about 14th — it wastes a very intriguing setup, bored the hell out of me, and somehow managed to cram about 280 pages of filler into a mere 160. The British Library Crime Classics and I shall agree to disagree on this one, and I do appear to be in the minority here; hence a break from Lorac, in the hope that — even if she does pull this sort of thing in Fire in the Thatch — I won’t mind quite so much when I come to read it.
Joules @ Northern Reader: Lorac is immensely capable as she manages to hold all the strands of this story together, and deals with all the characters who have a possible involvement. She obviously enjoys writing some of them, as a clever performer reveals much, an embattled London is described, and even the method of murder seems to become more obscure. The question of why a single murder in the face of so many civilian deaths warrants so much careful investigation is very reasonably raised, eliciting the answer that without justice for the dead there is no hope for civilization. This is a mature, complex and deeply satisfying murder mystery with so much more; a vivid picture of a city at war, and an examination of why one death matters.
Rich @ Past Offences: 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.