“There are very few men who have not got something to hide.”
In E.C.R. Lorac’s Fire in the Thatch, it’s Britain 1944, post Dunkirk and the war rages on. While German bombs may seem a world away, life is Devon is impacted. Colonel Saint Cyres still manages his expansive Devon estate, and out doors, enjoying the countryside, the Colonel can, momentarily, forget his troubles. The Colonel’s son, Denis, is being held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and in his absence, Denis’s wife, London society woman June, giddy, selfish and superficial, has relocated, reluctantly to Devon. June makes the move primarily for financial reasons, but Colonel Saint Cyres and his daughter Anne, who dislike June and can’t understand why on earth Denis married her, persuaded her to make the move for her small child’s sake, but also as a protective measure.
June has lived in Devon now for six months, and “it’s difficult to say who disliked the arrangement the most–June or her father-in-law.” The situation becomes even more strained when June insists that her father-in-law rent out a vacant cottage to her affluent London friend, Tommy Gressingham, but there’s already a lot of juicy gossip floating around about June’s relationship with Gressingham, plus the Colonel is opposed to renting out country property “as a wealthy man’s plaything, to be used on weekends.” The Colonel wants the long-neglected cottage, Little Thatch, to be used for farming once again, so when Nicholas Vaughan, an ex-naval man, recovering from an eye-injury, and passionate about farming, wants to rent Little Thatch, the Colonel very quickly agrees.
Nicholas Vaughan is the ideal tenant. In the prime of life, energetic and enthusiastic, he very quickly restores the cottage and the land. The Saint-Cyres are very pleased with their new tenant, but then tragedy strikes….
Fire in the Thatch is an excellent entry in the British Library Crime Classics series. Yes, there’s a murder which must be solved by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Macdonald, but the novel is also a testament to life during wartime: the strains of separation, rationing, evacuations, and also the opportunistic moneymen who are sitting safely on the sidelines. Life is changing in Britain, but more changes are still to come. Colonel Saint Cyres, chivalrous and naive, is emblematic of the soon-to-pass landed gentry who turn away from the idea of change, while Gressingham and his coterie of card-playing drinking, affluent carpet-baggers, welcome change, pursue it as they know money can be made.
The descriptions of Devon seem to be written with genuine love of the lush countryside. There are many references made to the shortage of labour, so the land is farmed by wizened old men. All the young-to-early-middle-aged men are gone, which makes Gressingham’s circle even more of an anomaly. While the lower classes are caricatured as they gossip and talk to the Inspector (some of their speech may be difficult for the non-English reader,) the upper classes are well-drawn. Gressingham, for example, is not the idiot he first appears to be, and Anne Saint-Cyres is a pleasant young woman who is caught between life as it used to be and a life of change. Some of the novel seems quaint and snobbish as when Anne describes Gressingham’s wife to her father:
She’s pretty frightful, daddy–from our point of view. What you’d call a hundred per cent Jezebel. She wears wine-coloured slacks and a fur coat.
Fire in the Thatch starts very well indeed, and I thought the plot was taking a certain direction when Lorac pulled a smooth switcheroo and created something much darker, much more poignant. This is a novel about loss, change, the sustainability of society during wartime, and a vanishing world. Britain will be irrevocably changed when the war finally ends, and Gressingham and his friends want to be on the scene to make money. Gressingham sees the future for the “land-owing gentry.”
What you refuse to realise is that this country’s going to swing to the left, and the hell of a a long way too.
Of the Lorac novels I’ve read so far, Fire in the Thatch, a novel about loss, change and moving forward into an altered world, is easily my favourite.