It is late in World War II. Colonel St. Cyres and his daughter Anne live in Devon, and his son is in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma. His daughter-in-law June and the five-year-old grandson live with them; while she much prefers London and its nightlife, even in wartime, she can’t afford to live there. So, she spends much of her time sulking and complaining about there being nothing to do.
The colonel’s estate includes an empty cottage and a small amount of land. June tries to convince him to let one of her London friends, a flashy speculator-type, rent it. The colonel is suspicious, however, and rightfully so – the friend is scouting the area to acquire property for a gold course. Instead, he rents it to an invalided Royal Navy man, hurt during the war, who is both resourceful and well experienced at restoring the cottage and operating a small farm.
A few months later, the renter dies in a fire that destroys the cottage. The coronor’s jury returns a verdict of accidental death, with the fire likely caused by faulty wiring or a problem with the chimney. The victim’s former commanding officer, however, is dissatisfied with the verdict, and is able to get Chief Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard involved in investigating what might have really happened.
Fire in the Thatch by E.R.C. Lorac is the story of Macdonald’s investigation. First published in 1946, it has been republished in the British Library Crime Classics series and includes an informative introduction by mystery writer Martin Edwards.
Lorac (1894-1958) is relatively unknown today, but she was one of the lights of the Golden Age of Mystery in Great Britain and a member of the Detection Club, which included such mystery writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton (Chesterton was the first president). Her real name was Edith Caroline Rivett, and she was one prolific writer. She published some 49 mystery novels under the Lorac pen name (most of them Chief Inspector Macdonald mysteries) and 23 under the pen name of Carol Carnac.
Fire in the Thatch tells a great story, with suspects abounding and little seeming to be as it appears. But Chief Inspector Macdonald is dogged and relentless, and he will eventually learn the truth and find the killer.
Top photograph by Richie Valens via . Used with permission.