Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac

Book Details

Originally published 1946
Robert MacDonald #27
Preceded by Murder by Matchlight
Followed by Murderer’s Mistake

The Blurb

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.

The Verdict

Lorac’s depiction of life in Devon during the later stages of World War 2 adds interest to an otherwise solid mystery.


My Thoughts

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.

Murder in the Mill-Race by E. C. R. Lorac

Murder in the Mill-Race
E. C. R. Lorac
Originally Published 1952
Also known as Speak Justly of the Dead (US)
Inspector MacDonald #36
Preceded by The Dog It Was That Died
Followed by Crook O’Lune

I have not previously written about any works by E. C. R. Lorac though that does not mean that I was entirely uninitiated when I picked up Murder in the Mill-Race. I own copies of each of the other Lorac titles released as part of the British Library Crime Classics and have made several attempts to read them. Somehow I just could not get into them and so they stay sat on my shelf waiting for me to give them another try.

I had little intention of reading Murder in the Mill-Race but it happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was about to leave for a weekend trip with my family when a bundle of ARCs arrived. I expected to have little time for reading but took the books anyway only to find when we got to our room that it had a really comfortable balcony that was the perfect place to read. The laptop wasn’t charged and the other book was a Bellairs (and I generally don’t read the same author back-to-back) so Lorac suddenly appeared at the top of the pile…

Murder in the Mill-Race begins by introducing us to Dr Raymond Ferens and his wife who have recently relocated to North Devon for the sake of his health. He establishes a practice in Milham and gets to know the locals, including Sister Monica – the warden of the children’s home who he takes a pretty quick dislike to.

Several months later she is discovered floating in the mill-race (for the sake of those who, like me, have no clue what this is it apparently is the channel of moving water next to a mill that turns its wheel – the book and introduction both assume the reader will know what this is). The local authorities would like to believe that the death was an accident and yet no one seems able to explain how she might have contrived to hit the back of her head and fall in the water. Inspector MacDonald is summoned and begins to ask uncomfortable questions, uncovering some local secrets including a previous suspicious death in the same place.

I should perhaps start by saying that I clearly enjoyed this a lot more than the other Lorac titles I tried to read. For one thing I completed this. A totally relaxing environment probably helped a little but I particularly appreciated the way Lorac depicts her setting. She so perfectly captures the stagnation of a rural village setting and the relationships between gentry and villager in that period that I found it a pretty immersive read and had little trouble believing that these locations and characters might exist.

I rarely make notes while reading but I wanted to share one moment that I found particularly effective. Emmeline Braithwaite, in talking to Anne Ferens, tells her how welcome she and Raymond are because they are the first ‘people from the outside world’ to have settled in the area in a quarter of a century. I found this sentiment to be a really interesting one as I don’t think it had ever really struck home with me quite how static communities could still be at the midpoint of the twentieth century. At the same time, I find it interesting how quickly the pair are integrated into village life, seeming to view MacDonald as an outsider themselves (particularly Raymond).

Several other reviewers (linked below) have commented on how they liked Raymond as an investigator and found the sudden switch from establishing his perspective to that of Chief Inspector MacDonald to be jarring. I have some sympathy for this though I think Lorac’s decision to introduce us to some of the personalities within the village prior to the crime being committed was a solid choice. After all, given the way the locals clam up once Sister Monica is dead it is helpful to get a sense of what they really think while she is still living and vexing them.

The actual circumstances of the murder are not particularly dazzling or memorable. This is perhaps appropriate given there is supposed to be considerable question about whether it is even a murder at all but it does mean that those initial phases of the investigation do not feel particularly remarkable.

MacDonald’s arrival gives the investigation some energy and I think sets the story on a more interesting course, though it does not present the reader with much in the way of clearly defined (or rather signposted) clues. Instead we observe the locals, hear what they say and choose not to say, and generally get a sense of the relationships between the different parties involved.

It resulted in a reading experience that reminded me more of Rendell than the more puzzle-focused Christie. I do feel that the reader is given the information they need to work out the killer’s identity (I say that in part because I did just that) but that relevant information tends to be buried and we are given little interpretation of those facts until MacDonald summarizes his findings. In other words, Lorac avoids giving us the opportunity to learn what information MacDonald views as relevant and makes solving the case a little bit tougher.

Rekha comments on finding MacDonald unlikeable and I can certainly see why he might inspire that reaction. Just as we do not follow his investigation very closely, I similarly felt that we get much of a sense of his character from this story. Now, I will say that this was a very late entry in a long-running series so there may have been an expectation that most readers would know him already but I did not get the sense of him as being a particularly dynamic or interesting sleuth off the back of this outing.

I did like the solution Lorac provides for the story and I do think it is both credible and interesting on a character level. I had no problem accepting MacDonald’s reasoning for his summation of the case but I will say that this part of the book struck me as a little dry and drawn out.

I think it’s fair to say that Murder in the Mill-Race exceeded my expectations by being a pretty solid case, even if the telling of that story was, at times, a little dry. What I appreciated most about it was the way Lorac is able to depict a community reacting to tragedy in ways both positive and negative, making those reactions feel credible and interesting. While not perfect, it’s enough to make me give those Lorac paperbacks a second chance.

I just need another vacation on which to enjoy them…

A copy was provided by the publisher, The British Library, for review.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Any outdoor location (Where)

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery shared his thoughts on this last year which are broadly positive. I do agree with his comments about the sort of false start Lorac gives us where one investigator is replaced by another.

Rekha @ The Book Decoder was less enthusiastic, finding Inspector MacDonald’s investigative style grating.

Countdown John falls somewhere in the middle, finding it readable but quite ordinary while Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime felt that the crime was not one the reader could solve themselves.

Finally, if you are looking for an interesting look at the life and career of E. C. R. Lorac I can recommend this overview by Curtis Evans.