Murder by Matchlight from E.C.R. Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett 1884-1959) takes place during the London Blitz and features the author’s series detective Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald. For both setting and plot development, the author capitalises on the Blitz–not only for the bombing but also for the massive human displacement which occurred. At 160 pages, this is a mystery from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that starts with a murder which occurs almost immediately. Although marred by coincidence, it’s clear from the cast of characters that the author had a lively sense of humour and a strong interest in human nature.
The novel begins on a dark night in London. It’s during the blackout and thirty-year-old Bruce Mallaig, suffering a disappointment, lingers in Regents Park. It’s a “moonless night,” but Mallaig is very familiar with the park and deep in thought, he sits on a park bench when he suddenly hears footsteps close by. The newcomer has a torch, and when Mallaig sees the man climb over and then hide under a bridge, he’s aware that something peculiar is afoot. Then another man arrives & calls out “anyone about?”:
Next he struck a match and lighted a cigarette. Bruce had a momentary glimpse of a thin pale face, rather whimsical, under the shadow of a trilby hat. “That chap’s an Irishman,” said Bruce to himself, remembering the voice he had heard–even those two words gave the brogue away. […] The Irishman finished his cigarette and flung the end away, so that the lighted tip made a tiny glowing arc before it fell into the damp grass beyond. A moment later he lighted another match, and Bruce rubbed his eyes, wondering if he were dazed by the bright splutter of light in the intense darkness. It seemed to him that beyond the small bright circle of matchlight there was another face in the darkness–no body, just a sullen dark face. The Irishman had bent his head, his cupped hands were shielding the match flame, and then he shook it to and fro and the light went out.
A murder occurs and initially, innocent bystander, Mallaig is a suspect. Once Chief Inspector Macdonald is on the scene, however, Mallaig is an observant witness who, handled delicately by Macdonald, proves to be invaluable. The murdered man is indeed Irish but in time Macdonald discovers that the victim was using an assumed name and had a troubled past with Sinn Fein. Since no one seemed to know the victim other than his fellow residents at a third rate boarding house, Macdonald decides to pursue the case there, among the theatrical residents.
There’s humour to be found in the characterizations of the various residents: “conjurors and illusionists” Mr and Mrs Ramses, variety actress Rosie Willing, Carringford, an advisor to a film company, hard-as-nails actress Odette Grey, and gregarious housekeeper Mrs Maloney. Through interviews with the residents, Macdonald begins to piece together a picture of the dead man’s life. Initially identified as John Ward, the victim was a shady character, unemployed with possible connections to the black market, a man who believed in “living easy and letting other folks foot the bill.” He relied on his charm and lived by his wits until apparently someone was motivated to commit murder. Mr Ramses is a particularly colourful character as he’s also a ventriloquist. The residents to the police seem to be “Bohemians,” and we see how Macdonald adjusts his interview techniques and encourages people to talk as he wades though the class structure.
the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce coloured, wadded silk dressing 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.
The author capitalizes on war displacement to illustrate how the murder victim could so easily switch identities and apply for a new ration card:
A man turns up from nowhere, possessing nothing: he says he has been bombed out and has lost his home, his family and his entire possessions. It’s happened in so many cases. How many people bother to substantiate the story?
There’s a certain glibness about the crime itself which expands into a complaint about the “Irish problem” in general, so the book reflects the prejudices of the times. The world is not worse off for the death of the victim, and the emphasis is on the various people who knew the dead man–an “able mind gone to seed.” For its tight plot and well-used setting, Murder by Matchlight is an enjoyable little mystery for those interested in detective fiction from this era.