Given my enjoyment of Crossed Skis (1952) earlier this year I was looking forward to trying more of Lorac’s work, especially since this was a wartime set story. From the little I have read by her I find her to be an author whose wartime tales do not overlook the conflict, but very much situate the mysteries within them. You could even say that the wartime setting enables the crimes in books such as these to flourish…
Today’s read commences with a special constable abruptly interrupting a quiet evening’s entertainment for the Manaton household. Siblings Rosanne and Bruce Manaton have three guests over; two of these guests, government employees, are playing chess, whilst the remaining guest is Andre Delaunier, an actor who Bruce is painting a portrait of. It transpires that the Manaton’s penny-pinching neighbour next door, Albert Folliner, has been murdered. His money has naturally disappeared as well. The victim’s nephew, a Canadian soldier, has immediately been detained, having attempted to escape the crime scene. Seemingly there is nothing further for Detective Chief Inspector Macdonald to do, when the case is given to him, but I think everyone knows that this will soon turn out not to be true…
Checkmate to Murder puts me in mind of other Lorac titles. Less well-to-do artistic bohemians and foggy London nights crop up more than once in her work and the British Library have in fact reprinted two other examples: Murder by Matchlight and Bats in the Belfry. Streets steeped in fog may make modern day readers think of Dickensian times, yet classic crime fiction at least reveals fog and smog to be habitual problems for city dwellers in the 40s and 50s – and how terribly convenient it is for mystery writers! Such weather phenomena immediately put a spoke in the wheel for obtaining neat alibis or ensuring a closed set of suspects. Wartime conditions equally cause havoc in trying to trace suspects and even means that witnesses are unable to confirm exactly when a gunshot may have been heard. Bruce remarks that ‘Londoners have heard so many bangs during their recent history, that a pistol shot isn’t so impressive a row as it used to be,’ whilst Inspector Macdonald comments that, ‘I suppose all Londoners who survived the winter of 1940 with nerves unimpaired, did develop what the psychologists call “a defence mechanism” – they learned to disregard disessential bangs.’ Lorac had experience of urban bombing, I think, so it is interesting to see her touching here and there on the psychological impact of living through such a crisis.
Lorac establishes the Manaton household setting well, with their genteel yet severe poverty. The war has certainly had an adverse effect on their incomes and Rosanne and Bruce are required to live in the dingiest of studios in Hampstead, where it is so cold Rosanne resorts to wearing a skiing costume indoors! Writers such as Lorac were not composing their narratives with future generations in mind. They were not (probably) considering how their works would be considered in terms of the social history they contain, and because of that I think titles such as this one are a mine of interesting nuggets of social history that you might not otherwise come across, (depending on your interests and reading tastes). I was particularly intrigued when an ARP warden describes someone as a ‘little rat’ and as a ‘typical C3’. I wondered to myself what on earth a ‘typical C3’ could be! A quick Google search later and Merriam-Webster was able to inform me that the term C3 was ‘assigned to a classification for recruits of the lowest grade of physical fitness for military service in World War I.’ So it seems to be quite the disparaging remark!
I would say the book starts well and the reader is intrigued by the possibility that someone in authority could possibly be guilty. However, a seasoned reader will begin to wonder about certain things… Why does Lorac start the story off at the Manaton household for instance, and then leave them out of the narrative, (post initial police interview), until chapter 10, nearer the end of the book? The reader knows they have to be involved somehow, so consequently other red herring suspects are easy to avoid. Lorac also seems to encounter something of a plotting difficulty, as in order to prevent the reader from receiving the solution too soon, she has to take Macdonald on a very circuitous route to the ending. At times this circuitous route felt like padding with the middle of the book losing some of the initial energy it began with.
The plot might be imperfect but Lorac’s use of setting and crafting of characters is typically engaging and Macdonald is a sympathetic detective to follow. It is also interesting to see his subordinates at work and following up their own lines of enquiry.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)