Checkmate to Murder: A Second World War Mystery by E. C. R. Lorac

Checkmate to Murder is set during the Blitz, and the story begins in Rosanne and Bruce Manton’s dilapidated studio apartment in Hampstead, London. Rosanne and Bruce, two siblings, are a wood engraver and an artist, respectively. With the war, their income streams have dried up, and now they are constantly oscillating between “absolutely broke” and “broke” states. It’s their poverty that has forced them to move to this particular apartment located in a bomb-ridden site, which was once a fashionable neighborhood. And on this fateful night of the murder, three other guests are gathered in Mantons’ apartment. Cavenish, a civil servant, and Mackellon, a government scientist, are there for a game of chess, while Delaunier, an actor, has come to pose for Bruce’s portrait painting. While the men are occupied in the main room, Rosanne is in the kitchen cooking supper. Right after Rosanne sets the table for dinner, a Special Constable barges into their apartment, dragging a young Canadian soldier with him.

Verraby, the Special Constable, accuses Neil Folliner, the soldier, of having killed the elderly Folliner who lived right next door to the Mantons. The slain man, a proper miser, was the landlord of the Mantons and Neil’s great uncle. According to Verraby, he walked in on Neil who had just shot and killed Folliner – an allegation Neil vehemently denies – and stopped Neil from escaping. Verraby insists this is a straightforward case. However, Inspector MacDonald from the Scotland Yard who has been sent to investigate doesn’t take anything at face value, which is good considering there’s more to this case than it meets the eye!

Similar to Murder by Matchlight, E. C. R. Lorac’s writing here offers a real sense of time during the terror of the Blitz. Bombed buildings, covered up windows and street lamps, civilian air raid wardens who were out and about every day to ensure buildings were properly blacked out portray what must have been the “new normal” to those who lived at the time, along with some of the conversations. For instance, as a way of explaining why he didn’t hear the shot that killed Folliner, Bruce tells Inspector MacDonald “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” before adding that he believes “subconsciously, one assesses sounds in the light of one’s experiences.”

Another thing I loved about Checkmate to Murder is the depiction of Inspector MacDonald. He reminds me of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret in many ways, but MacDonald is much younger and vigorous. MacDonald is a true gentleman, a fact that has been highlighted in other novels in the series too. He is not the sort of fellow who’d jump into conclusions without clear evidence, and he is polite and extremely nice in his dealings unless you give him a reason to believe you are lying through your teeth! ūüėĀ It’s always pleasant to spend some time in the company of this good detective.

3.5 stars.

Note: Many thanks to British Library Publishing for sending me a review copy of Checkmate to Murder.

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