With his dinner plans scuppered, Bruce Mallig is left wandering the streets of London during a blackout. Eventually he makes it to Regents Park, where his evening gets more dramatic when the sight of a match being struck reveals to him the face of a killer and his Irish victim, who is killed on a bridge, head bashed in. Mallig is not the only one in the vicinity, there is the matter of the nosey parker underneath the bridge and a doctor walking his dog. Are these three witnesses or is one of them a killer? Chief Inspector Macdonald’s investigation is made more difficult by the fact the victim was using a false name. There is also the matter of the various theatrical inhabitants of the victim’s accommodation. Living a wastrel life, the victim was forever cadging money off others and not above blackmail and black market racketeering, amongst other crimes. All the while WW2 is in full swing, with nightly raids making their presence strongly felt in the narrative.
I think this novel would be pretty hard to review without mentioning the war. It is no mere backdrop, but is an integral part of the story, from the way the blackout effects eye witness testimony and the problems of tracking people’s past histories when some many buildings have been destroyed in the Blitz, to perhaps a very unique scene in the book in which Macdonald and his cohort end up having to conduct an interview whilst an air raid is going on. Questions interspersed between blasts soon have to be abandoned as saving lives becomes a more paramount point, not that Macdonald isn’t still thinking through the case.
Of course such a context brings certain questions to the surface, such as the arguable absurdity of solving the murder of one non-descript man, when there is some much more carnage going on during air raid attacks and on the battle field. This theme doesn’t overrun the narrative, but it enters into Macdonald’s conversations from time to time. Yet unlike in Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman, I think these moments and others hold a greater emotional resonance. Moreover the most emotional moments are often when characters say the least, such as when Macdonald is investigating the victim’s last known address and frequently he is talking to various locals, civil defence workers etc. working in amongst the latest mound of rumble. These short conversations of lost homes, spouses and limbs, may seem sweeping in their brevity, especially as Macdonald often merely replies with ‘I know.’ But I think the conciseness actually works the other way, with some things not needing to be said and perhaps Lorac’s contemporary readers may have felt the same way. It is definitely different reading this type of text long after the war has ended, yet even so I think readers today will find the war aspects of the book feel authentic.
The mechanics of the crime are quite interesting as initially everyone is quite perplexed that whilst one witness saw the face of the killer, no one heard their footsteps to the bridge. The answer to this query though is quite quickly resolved, but nevertheless unusual. Macdonald conducts a very methodical investigation, yet the way new characters and events crop up prevent this from becoming dry and stale. The motive and choice of culprit are very satisfying and the cluing for this one is strong, though of course I missed most of them!
This reprint also include the short story, ‘Permanent Policeman,’ (1953) which first appeared in MacKill’s Mystery Magazine. Given how short it is I don’t feel I can say anything about the plot, though fans of early 2000 chick flicks will spot an interesting connection between a certain film and this story. I’ll say no more over than to recommend Lorac’s entertaining and immersive novel.
Source: Review Copy (British Library)