He waited as she had bidden him, amusing himself by visualising the owner of the cheerful Cockney voice. A woman as old or older than himself, he judged (Macdonald was looking fifty in the face), a Londoner undoubtedly, one of the undaunted millions who take blackout and bombs in their stride, and prefer the hazards of those “twin b’s” to the “’orrible ’ush” of the safe countryside.
I haven’t read any of the British Library Crime Classics in a while despite the fact that I have enjoyed all the ones I have read so far. Murder by Matchlight is a recent re-publication of an author I had never heard of. I’m a fan of Golden Age crime fiction in general but this novel had an additional bonus for me- it was published in 1945 and is set during the war. It is an interesting novel and very readable, and I liked that the war time setting was integral to the plot. What made it truly fascinating though was the reality of it… This is a contemporary look at life in London during the Second World War. Blackouts and rationing are not new information to me of course but I feel there must be a realness to the way Lorac has her characters behave and feel given the publication date.
To add the last touch of grotesqueness to a grotesque night, Macdonald found that his share in the final rescue act (probably made, he reflected, at the risk of both their lives to judge from the creaks of the old house) was the salvaging of Mrs. Rameses’ silk stockings (in his pockets) and a quantity of her clothing (over his arm).
This mystery is investigated by Chief Inspector Macdonald after a man is murdered noiselessly in the dark of the blackout on a bridge in Regent’s Park. The mystery is made even more intriguing by the presence of two witnesses who initially kept their presence secret in the dark of the park and were then startled by the noise of the murdered Johnny Ward’s body falling.
The witnesses had only been able to hear what was happening as the only light in the park on this November night had been provided by Johnny briefly lighting a match in order to light his cigarette before he died.
An interesting cast of characters is quickly established as as well as the two witnesses, Johnny lived in a boarding house. As more is revealed about Johnny’s character and life it becomes clear that there could be multiple motives for his murder.
At first I was rather frustrated by the author seeming to use a number of coincidences to move the plot along but these were in fact explained convincingly as more was revealed.
The war time setting is used in the plot brilliantly, from the blackout adding a layer of possible deception to everything to the way that the suspects’ strength of character are seen through how they cope with living in London in wartime.
There are multiple episodes dealing with people being bombed out of their homes that adds a real depth to what could be just a pleasant, cosy read.
When Macdonald reached Dulverton Place the next morning, he was quite prepared for what he found: it seemed a logical continuity with the negative room. The short street still existed as a thoroughfare, but it ran through a level open space where small hummocks of rubble alone had been left by the demolition of bombed premises. There were acres of such open spaces between the Elephant and Castle and Camberwell Green. After one prolonged stare Macdonald made his way back to the main road and stopped the first Civil Defence worker he met. The C.I.D. man stated his identity and then, pointing to Dulverton Place he inquired: “When did that happen?”
“Last February,” was the answer. “Funny thing— that street survived all through the ’40–’ 41 blitz— never touched. Then on the night of February 10th a load of incendiaries came down on it. We got everybody out and put them in the big surface shelter at the end there— and then a big H.E. hit the shelter. Shocking business. Sheer bad luck.”
Macdonald nodded. “All that,” he said. “Some of them survive?”
“Oh yes. A surprising number. My God! I shan’t forget going in with the Rescue Squad… Some things you can’t forget.”
“I know,” said Macdonald, and for a few seconds they both stood in silence.
The mystery itself worked well and I would be tempted to read more of her work, even though it was the 1940s setting that sold me on this. I half guessed whodunit although not why and there were plenty of clues that I did not pick up on initially until they were made clear by the author.
It was a great pick for my 1945 read for A Century Of Books challenge and was the second book in a row I’ve read on my kindle and devoured in one sitting. If you like Golden Age crime or are interested in the Second World War it is well worth a read.
Fact is, I’m a bit tired of the case. It seems to me that the fact that one ne’er-do-well has met a violent end is not a matter of supreme importance in a world which is in the throes of a convulsion which may destroy civilisation itself before we’re through.