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

Towards the end of WWII, landowner Colonel St Cyres grants the tenancy of Little Thatch to invalided serviceman Nicholas Vaughan. Vaughan immediately sets out to restore the neglected farm, which includes a derelict thatched cottage. A reserved, somewhat aloof man who wants only to work and make his living off the land, Vaughan is well liked by the locals who appreciate his attitude and industry. Unfortunately, there are others who don’t feel so well inclined towards him, those who wanted the property for other reasons, and were refused. When Little Thatch cottage burns to the ground, and Vaughan is found dead inside, it is thought to be a terrible accident. Some are not so sure, and Inspector Macdonald is being called in to investigate.

Those who have read Lorac know that she had a great love for the Devon countryside, and here described in loving detail, she makes it almost a character in and of itself. 

On the further bank the land rose again in a series of gentle ridges, meadow land, plough land, and finally wood land in the distance, Here and there a thatched roof seemed to be tucked into the comfortable folds of the rich Devon Valley, and blue wood smoke coiled into the still cold air. Everything was agleam with hoar frost, scintillating in the level rays of the sun which threw shafts of intense light along the valley and made the swift-running river flash back the white beams.”

Against this backdrop Lorac creates characters and subplots that make for a compelling mystery. Colonel St Cyres and his daughter Anne, saddened that someone who they saw as more than a tenant should die so needlessly, but unwilling to see that this was anything but an accident. The Colonel’s daughter-in-law June, a Londoner by birth, staying with her father-in-law because her husband is a prisoner of war in Burma, bored by country life, wanted her friend Tommy Gessingham to be given Little Thatch “so she can be in and out of the place any time she likes.” Gessingham, a Londoner, married, and according to Anne “’His motive is obvious. He comes here because June is here.’” But he has more than June in mind when it comes to Little Thatch. A financier, he sees the potential of the property as a money maker post-war. And Vaughan, hard-working, a north country man by birth. Why would he choose Devon as a place to settle? His reticence leads to suspicions regarding of his motives. 

Having just read The Box Office Murders by Freeman Wills Crofts, I would have to say that the story is, at it’s root is very Croftsian, but with emotional depth. A police procedural, highlighting MacDonald’s careful detection with interviews, following up details, then piecing it together. Lorac carefully creates several plausible red-herrings that keep the reader guessing, and plays fair in the doling out of clues…almost. There is one piece of essential information uncovered by MacDonald that is not revealed until after the culprit is uncovered.  But with a victim that the reader can get some sense of, and genuinely like, there is a sense of melancholy that isn’t normally felt with most mysteries of this kind.

A beautifully written story and well clued mystery, making this by far my favorite by E. C. R. Lorac. 

My Judgment– 4.5/5

Prior Rulings– crossexaminingcrime, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

2 thoughts on “Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac

    1. I probably overstated (or maybe over-simplified Crofts ?) it just a bit. I found it Croftsian in the sense that it is “procedural”, following MacDonald’s step-by-step investigation, he makes his deductions based on a great deal of physical evidence…although Lorac doesn’t even make an attempt at the painstaking reconstructions, timetables, etc. that Crofts did.

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