Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac
Originally published 1946
Robert MacDonald #27
Preceded by Murder by Matchlight
Followed by Murderer’s Mistake
The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon renting a thatched cottage in the beautiful countryside at Mallory Fitzjohn. Vaughan sets to work farming the land, rearing geese and renovating the cottage. Hard work and rural peace seem to make this a happy bachelor life.
On a nearby farm lives the bored, flirtatious June St Cyres, an exile from London while her husband is a Japanese POW. June’s presence attracts fashionable visitors of dubious character, and threatens to spoil Vaughan’s prized seclusion. When Little Thatch is destroyed in a blaze, all Vaughan s work goes up in smoke and Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to uncover a motive for murder.
I have been meaning to return to the works of E. C. R. Lorac ever since I read Murder in the Mill-Race last Summer. In my review of that title I noted that I had made several previous attempts to start her books but I never seemed to be able to get into them. Still, I had enjoyed that novel and, in particular, its depiction of country life so of the other reprints I owned, this had the greatest attraction for me.
The novel is set in Devon and takes place in the later stages of the war. Colonel St Cyres owns a vacant property, Little Thatch, on his land and is approached by several interested parties looking to lease it. One, a rich city type, is supported by his daughter-in-law but he regards the man as distasteful and opts instead to lease it to a man who had served in the Navy before being injured and who is keen to work the land.
That man, Nicholas Vaughan, works hard over the following months to make improvements to the aging structure, impressing many of the locals with his work ethic. Sadly however a fire breaks out at Little Thatch late one night and he is burned to death in what appears to be a tragic accident.
These opening chapters unfold at a rather leisurely pace, giving lots of detail both about the relationships between the various figures in the community surrounding Little Thatch and also about farming in that period. Much of this is necessary to establish the key points of the mystery but I cannot say I was particularly engaged with the characters or the scenario at that point.
That changed significantly for me with the introduction of Chief Inspector MacDonald into the story. He is brought into the case when one of Vaughan’s friends from the Navy questions the coroner’s verdict. Several of his arguments amount to little more than hunches but he does enough to sow some seeds of doubt for MacDonald and so he travels to Devon to investigate for himself.
This plot setup in which a detective has to prove there was a case to investigate at all can be rather effective and Lorac handles it well. Smartly the author does not attempt to make the reader question this – after all, were there not to be a murder then this book would be rather pointless – but instead the focus is on how he will prove it.
That investigation is, much like the opening chapters, fairly leisurely paced. This is not the sort of case where the reader is presented with shocking new information but rather one in which our understanding of a situation is fleshed out with new details, painting a fuller picture.
Similarly I cannot claim that the solution to this mystery is hugely shocking but I think Lorac builds up to the reveal of their guilt pretty well, giving us a much richer understanding of their character. There are a couple of clever pieces of reasoning involved in MacDonald’s accusation. For instance, I was quite impressed by the account he gives of the killer’s movements although I am not certain that the reader could really work everything out for themselves. It makes for a solid, if not especially flashy, case.
There were several aspects of the novel that elevated it for me. I was appreciative of the details Lorac includes that give us a sense of the place and time. The war mostly exists in the background but there are some striking moments where it comes into focus such as when MacDonald compares the burnt out cottage to those buildings in London that had been hit by bombs.
There is also some interesting discussion of the tensions between city and country dwellers. That is most evident in the way Gressingham is portrayed as lacking in moral character and also in how he is talked about by the other characters but he is by no means the only example.
Lorac’s sympathies do seem to fall more heavily towards the country folk and, in particular, towards Colonel St Cyres. I might suggest that he is cut from the same sort of cloth as Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham – a sort of idealized, paternalistic landlord. Still, the contrast between the two types is done quite well and I found both characters interesting in the way they respond to MacDonald’s questioning.
Which brings me to the other aspect of this novel I loved – the character of Chief Inspector MacDonald.
Lorac’s sleuth is presented as being a man of sound judgment, compassion and great humanity. On several occasions in the novel he shows awareness of how the investigation is affecting others and approaches the evidence in a reasonable, measured way that fits the overall tone and pacing of the novel. I certainly liked him far more here than I did in Mill-Race and I would be interested to get to know him better.
As a mystery Fire in the Thatch is solid enough but I think it was those elements that kept me reading. For me it was these elements of the setting and the personality of the sleuth that drew me in and make me most interested to read more from Lorac.
The Verdict: Lorac’s depiction of life in Devon during the later stages of World War 2 adds interest to an otherwise solid mystery.