Fire in the Thatch - E.C.R. Lorac

First published in 1946, Fire in the Thatch takes place in immediately post WWII Devon. The victim, Nicholas Vaughn, former soldier invalided out with serious injuries, leases a small farm, called Little Thatch, complete with the titular thatched cottage, from Colonel St. Cyres. 

 

He was not the only person who wanted the lease for Little Thatch, however. There were at least two others, including Mr. Gressingham, a nouveau riche fellow from London who is in Devon visiting with the Colonel's daughter-in-law, June. Gressingham is quite put out that Colonel St. Cyres has chosen Nicholas to rent the small tenancy instead of allowing him to, as the Colonel says, "turn it into a rich man's plaything."

 

Lorac takes her time introducing the murder, allowing the reader to get a good sense of the Devon community. Vaughn moves into the cottage on a ten year lease and starts putting the property back into good order, planting the fields, repairing the cottage, pruning the orchard and generally acting like a farmer, which endears him even more to the Colonel and his daughter, Anne.

 

There are definitely two different styles of characters in Fire in the Thatch. On the one side, we have the traditionally British rural characters, such as the Colonel, Anne and Nicholas. This group is reserved, blunt and hardworking. On the other side, we have the more modern, urban characters, including June, who is a bit of a party girl living in the back-of-beyond only because her husband, Colonel's son, is a POW in Burma, and Gressingham and his hangers on. This group is fashionable, shallow and prone to misbehavior (in the eyes of the first group, especially). It is clear which of the types E.C.R. Lorac finds worthy of respect.

 

The main investigator in Fire in the Thatch is Inspector MacDonald - this was Lorac's 26th mystery featuring him. Inspector MacDonald is dispatched to Devon when Vaughn's commanding officer takes an interest in the case which has previously been ruled an accident, from a fire that started from some exposed wiring. The commanding officer is insistent that Vaughn, a naval engineer who was raised on a farm and is handy around buildings, chimneys, and the like, would not accidentally burn himself up.

 

The mystery in this book is quite complex. It takes awhile for Inspector MacDonald to determine if it is a murder, and then awhile for him to solve it, although solve it he does. He is a likeable protagonist who gets along well with the other characters, and who takes a methodical, but not plodding, approach to solving the case. I really liked the setting a lot. Overall, I found it enjoyable enough that I'll take a look at her only other book available from British Library Crime Classics Bats in the Belfry, which is set in London.