Checkmate to Murder (E.C.R. Lorac)

  • By E.C.R. Lorac
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1944; US: Mystery House, 1944
  • Availability: British Library, 2020, introduction by Martin Edwards

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Lorac specialises in quietly naturalistic murder. There is nothing sensational about the crime. On a foggy night in the blackout, an old miser is shot dead to steal his cashbox. Commonplace, one might think; not particularly interesting.

But Lorac is a fine, intelligent writer. She appreciates “the literary style of Michael Innes and the encyclopaedic information of Dorothy L. Sayers” (Ch. 11), although her own approach is less showy. She does people and dialogue extremely well, from the Bohemians in the adjoining studio to a rather wonderful Cockney charwoman, and she has an artist’s eye for colour and form.

True, Checkmate suffers from longueurs; the characters we’re introduced to fade out for some time, and the middle, police-heavy section feels rather padded. Once Lorac returns to people – her strength – the story improves.

Some bloggers have complained that the culprits are obvious; I must have been blind. “Of course I ought to kick myself round and round the room,” one character comments. “This trick was played under our very noses, and we never tumbled to it.” There is a clever bit of misdirection, for which I completely fell (the person at the door), and a very simple, effective alibi; the ynl svther passes unnoticed, but is obvious in hindsight – I felt rather a dummy. Check and mate, Ms Lorac.

Lorac seems to have been politically liberal. Characters reflect that “there was more genuine goodness to be found among the poor and illiterate than among all the intellectuals who posed as her brother’s friends…” (Ch. 1); are sceptical of imperialists (Ch. 2); and are horrified by servant conditions of the Victorian era (Ch. 8). Remember: Lorac addressed the Fascist menace in Crime Counter Crime (1936); an unsympathetic character is based on Oswald Mosley.

Her police inspector, Macdonald, too, is in his quiet way an intellectual, much less prone to quotations than Appleby. He compares the studio scene to “An opera which has never been written, with music by Berlioz, libretto by [Stephen] Spender or Auden, decor by Picasso, and choreography by Nijinski” (Ch. 3).

Other reviews: Cross Examining Crime; In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.


BLURBS

1944 Collins

There are five people in Bruce Manston’s Hampstead studio one foggy day in January. At one end of the fifty foot studio Bruce Manston is painting the portrait of an actor, André Delaunier, in the scarlet robes of a cardinal; at the other end Robert Cavenish of the Home Office is playing chess with Ian McKellon a government chemist. Bruce’s sister Rosanne is cooking supper in the little kitchen adjoining the studio. To Rosanne, an artist herself, occurred the thought that here was a scene set for a perfect pictorial composition. Actually, had she known, it was set for high tragedy. Even at that moment the quietness was broken by a knocking at the door… E. C. R. Lorac is a writer with a rare sense of atmosphere and in Checkmate to Murder once again thrills us with a grandly exciting story of murder.

1944 Mystery House

Each of the five strangely assorted people in Bruce Manston’s great barn-like studio seemed for the most part unaware that the others were present. At one end of the long room, Manston worked with savage concentration on his portrait of André Delaunier, and Delaunier, wearing the superb scarlet robe of a cardinal, held his pose in silence and with an actor’s flair for the dramatic.

Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC
What a wonderfully surreal cover!

At the other end of the long room, Robert Cavenish of the British Home Office and Ian McKellon, a government chemist, were equally absorbed in a game of chess. To Rosanne, Bruce’s young sister, an artist herself, looking in from time to time from the adjoining kitchenette, the studio seemed the perfect subject for a picture.

It was a scene whose significance was soon to change, for even as Rosanne was preparing dinner – a dinner never to be eaten – the Manstons’ hermit landlord was murdered in the house next door. And it did not take Chief Inspector Macdonald of the C.I.D. long to establish the fact that only seven people could have been near the murdered man. Among the seven suspects were the five people in the Manston studio.

Thus Mr. Lorac, noted for his excellently written novels of characterisation and deduction, begins his newest and most exciting story of murder.


CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 12th February 1944): With characteristic neatness and economy Mr. Lorac sets the scene simply in Checkmate to Murder.  The chess-players are in a studio where an actor dressed in cardinal’s hat and robes sits for his portrait.  While the painter’s sister is cooking, a special constable drags in a soldier whom he accuses of murder.  There are a few developments, but not many.  Pleasure is given by the author’s pride in keeping to facts.  He scorns obvious tricks of distracting attention.  The police, of course, collect all manner of evidence, but the problem is squarely presented.  It maintains the high standard already set for this season.

2 thoughts on “Checkmate to Murder (E.C.R. Lorac)

  1. I have read only one book by her so far (The Striped Suit-case) but the second paragraph of your review conveys very perceptively and clearly what I liked about her style.

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  2. I think the comments about the culprit being obvious are a little unfair – how often have you read a book and thought “it’s obvious who did this”, only to find out you were wrong? Even when an obvious criminal turns out to be the right one, there’s usually enough of interest in her books to make you feel they were worth reading. For example, in “Part for a Poisoner” I really did think the murderer’s identity was easy to spot, but the other aspects of the story (particularly a portrait of a character who could be called her own worst enemy) made it highly readable.

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