Checkmate to Murder – E C R Lorac
Edith Caroline Rivett was a prolific author whose career spanned from 1931 until her death in 1959, before languishing in obscurity, only for British Library Crime Classics to begin the long job of reissuing her works to be rediscovered by a modern readership. A long job it is too, as she wrote forty-eight murder mysteries under the nom de plume of E C R Lorac (her initials and Lorac being an inversion of her abbreviated middle name), twenty-three as Carol Carnac and several others as Mary Le Bourne. Checkmate to Murder fits almost in the middle of her literary career, published in 1944, and is the 24th in the Inspector Macdonald series.
I found this a very satisfying, neat and enjoyable murder mystery which seemed to go out of its way to play scrupulously fair with its readership. For those who want to pit their wits against the author, some of the clues to the solution are revealed in the narrative, some as Macdonald reveals what the police investigations are uncovering and the remainder in what the witnesses are telling the Inspector. Those who do not want to strain their little grey cells will find that they will be absorbed in what is an engrossing and initially baffling mystery.
On a foggy night in Hampstead a disparate group has met at a flat for a party. Two of the guests, a civil servant and a government scientist are there to play a game of chess while Bruce Manaton paints the portrait of an actor who is dressed in a striking cardinal’s red robe. In the kitchen Rosie is pottering about and steps out of the flat to ensure that a troublesome black out screen is in place. This rather cosy domestic scene is interrupted when a special constable arrives with a young Canadian infantryman whom he has found in the neighbouring flat of Mr Folliner, a secretive miser.
Folliner, naturally, has been murdered and prima facie it looks as though the soldier, who happens to be Folliner’s nephew, is the guilty party as he was found at the scene of the crime by the policeman. The prisoner is, surprisingly, left with the Manaton party, while the policeman goes off to summon assistance. This is the cue for Inspector Macdonald to take control of the investigations. He is not convinced of the veracity of the special constable’s version of events nor that the young soldier is guilty. As the investigation unfolds there is more behind the seemingly callous slaying of an old, helpless man than initially meets the eye, not least because the ramshackle property he inhabits is standing in the way of progress.
In what reads as a quasi-locked room mystery, there is only a very small list of suspects, but all with the exception of the soldier and Rosie, have solid alibis. Part of the solution lies in the phenomenal powers of concentration that the two chess players deploy when they are playing and to their horror, they realise that they might have been pawns in a bigger game. Rivett comes up with an ingenious plan to commit a murder and a motive that initially seems far from obvious.
The book is engaging from start to finish, with some lacings of humour, much of which is provided by Folliner’s deluded but kind-hearted charlady, and one that is credible and a delight to read. I shall certainly read more of Rivett’s work in all her guises.