Source: Review Copy (British Library)
E. C. R. Lorac is my choice this week for Friday’s Forgotten Book meme. I’ve always found it amusing how surprised people were when they found out that Lorac was really a woman, as up until that point reviewers and readers alike had assumed she was a man. H R F Keating in particular was quite surprised, having always found her prose to be masculine, a point I found quite interesting, as I’ve never had a strong impression of either femininity or masculinity in the books of Lorac’s that I have read. Then again I think I have some qualms about demarcating some writing as feminine and others masculine. At times I can see in a writer’s characterisation a more gendered point of view, but I’d hate to say for instance that Freeman Wills Croft’s work, with its never ending time tables and plans and alibis, is stereotypically masculine, simply because it adheres to traditional views that men are the logical and rational ones. But alas I digress and in a jumbled manner to boot. Apologies. Back to Lorac. It has not been easy in the main to track down reasonably priced copies of Lorac’s work. There have been the occasional reprint by more independent publishers and this year sees a continuation of this with the British Library having reprinted Bats in the Belfry (1937) last month and today’s read this month.
Fire in the Thatch (1946) is set in rural Devon in a small hamlet/village, just as the war is coming to a close. Yet whilst the surroundings might be peaceful, some of the inhabitants are decidedly not. Colonel St Cyres has made himself deeply unpopular with his daughter in law, June, (whose husband is a POW), as rather than lease his rundown cottage to her stockbroker friend Tommy Gressingham, he has given it to Nicholas Vaughan, who has been invalided out of the Navy. Aside from believing that Vaughan will have more interest in cultivating the land than city bred Gressingham, Anne, the Colonel’s daughter, also believes that June wants Gressingham nearby for less savoury reasons. However Gressingham is not thwarted that easily and soon manages to find a place to stay, though it seems he has business as well as romantic aspirations, with plans to buy substantial property in the area, by hook or by crook, in order to build a country club. Some time passes and tragedy strikes, as the Colonel’s cottage, Little Thatch, experiences a large fire, leaving its occupant, Vaughan dead. It is initially presumed to be an accident, but Commander Wilton, (Vaughan’s friend), believes otherwise, which leads to the arrival of Chief Inspector Macdonald to sort things out. He has a range of questions to muse over – How did the fire start? How did Vaughan get the blow to his head? And even who was Vaughan planning on marrying?
In a nutshell this is my favourite Lorac novel to date. It has a wonderful character setup, with the Colonel and his daughter having to cope with living with June, who really doesn’t want to live with them but has sufficient debt that she has no other option. This of course leads to many an emotional dust up and it is not surprising that the poor Colonel has to find refuge in his wood shed. Yet Lorac’s characterisation is far from two-dimensional, as even those who typically would be seen as the “unpleasant” suspects, are shown to have more than one side to them. For instance Anne tries to see things from June’s point of view and can see how her upbringing and expectations lead her to being a complete fish out of water in rural Devon. We can see this when the Colonel complains about June’s laziness, saying that: ‘There was never a time in the world’s history when there was more need for men and women of goodwill to work together to justify their existence – and justify their privileges too.’ Yet Anne critiques this to an extent replying that ‘it’s not easy to find a job fitted to one’s limitations when one is transplanted into a strange environment.’
In a way I also felt there was something of a role reversal, as often in more rurally set novels in the 1940s and 50s the country house owner or the landed gentry are shown to be ineffectual and lazy, struggling to maintain their homes in the old accustomed ways and it is often the new comers who bring the energy to effect real change. Yet in this book Lorac shows characters such as the Colonel to be very hard workers, whilst the more urban characters are more parasitic and/or decadently inactive.
Lorac also uses character types very effectively, to lead you down the garden path and I like how she makes you second guess the characters you thought you had pinned down. This is particularly pertinent to the characters of Vaughan and Gressingham. Can they be seen in such black and white terms as good vs. bad? The narration also works well as it allows you to follow Macdonald’s investigation around, but also witness the anxious conversations between the suspects.
The setting is also another strong aspect of the book, with the old vs new ways of life in nearly post war Britain being depicted vividly. There is a definite anxiety amongst all the characters of what changes will happen. In addition Martin, in his introduction, also brings up a very interesting point when he discusses the attitudes the country characters have towards helping bombed out urban civilians. In many cases there is a high reluctance to offer bombed out city dwellers accommodation and Martin suggests this creates an eerie parallel between the attitudes raised here and the attitudes voiced today about immigration and refugees. An example of such a negative attitude in the story is, ‘We don’t want them here and we can’t do with them.’ Yet again Lorac provides the other side of the coin in the guise of Anne who has a more sympathetic perspective: ‘Can’t you imagine what it feels like to have had your home destroyed, to be left standing in a bombed street with nothing but the clothes you’ve got on, and then to hear people who have lost nothing at all saying, ‘We don’t want you. You’re only a nuisance’?’
In terms of its actual mystery, I would this story also scores very highly, as it has a good pace and the primary death keeps you engaged. The use of a fire is an interesting one. It is not unheard of in mystery fiction, but invariably I have found it to be a murder method which is not usually adopted for the primary deaths, but is more used by a panicked murderer trying to kill off people who know too much, such as in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Ianthe Jerrold’s Let Him Lie (1940).
My only criticism of this book is that the ending is rushed. It holds together, but I don’t feel it maintains the very high standards of the rest of the book. However I don’t think this should deter anyone hugely from trying the book, as my rating indicates. Lots to love in this book and an excellent introduction to Lorac’s work.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Crime Involved Fire/Arson