Checkmate to Murder

Written by E C R Lorac

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Checkmate to Murder
British Library Publishing
RRP: £6.99
Released: August 10 2020

Winter 1943/44. In a run-down studio an artist and his model occupy one end, while two friends are occupied in a game of chess at the other. The artist’s sister is making stew for the five of them in a tiny kitchen. In the streets it is black out, and inside the black-out is only just efficient. Into this burst a Special Constable with his prisoner. The studio is attached to a decaying Hampstead mansion and in the only habitable room of that house the constable says he has found the owner shot dead and his prisoner, a Canadian soldier, standing over the body. Before long, E C R Lorac’s regular Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Macdonald, is on the case.

In some ways this is a claustrophobic case – apart from the characters in the house and studio at the time of the murder, and then the appearance of the old man’s char-lady, there are only another two characters of importance, and their presence is, to use modern terminology, practically virtual. On the other hand it is a book which bears close reading because the clues to the solution are all there. Some of them are immediate in the narrative, others appear as Macdonald reveals what the police investigation is discovering (that is, clues are not held back). And a third set of clues lies in Macdonald listening intently to the witnesses.

As a police procedural go there are good sections. The run-down studio has had previous inhabitants, and the remains of their work has to be traced and studied. Macdonald’s sidekick, Reeves, travels out to Harrow, looking for paintings, while Macdonald interviews the witnesses. His interrogation of the Special Constable, a business-man in his daily life, is cleverly done, particularly as it has to be repeated due to the discovery of his doings in business life. Social historians, too, will find the background interesting – areas of London now worth fortunes had been allowed to go near-derelict. A housing shortage has forced (apparently!) the artist brother and sister to take the miserable studio, where they must struggle to make their rationed foods go as far as possible. The Special Constable was patrolling alone as his usual partner was laid up by the influenza epidemic while the Canadian had come to visit his uncle, filling in time while waiting, as the char-lady says, in the build-up to the forthcoming allied landings.

And what of the painting as the murder took place? It was to be a portrait of a cardinal, in glowing reds. In my mind, though – and this is anachronistic, I see it as an early version of Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope. The character who might have screamed was the murdered miser, Albert Folliner, but as almost no one seemed to notice the deadly shot who would have heard him scream?

In one of those little coincidences of life, Checkmate to Murder is just one of the books I have read recently that have made me re-read them, too. Honestly, could anyone be satisfied with a single reading of this classic?

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