A review of Bats in the Belfry by E C R Lorac
Bats in the Belfry is the thirteenth in the Robert Macdonald series from the pen of Edith Caroline Rivett, the woman behind E C R Lorac, originally published in 1937 and now reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. For a prolific writer, this was published in the same year as These Names Make Clues and The Missing Rope, the latter under her other pseudonym of Carol Carnac, her standards rarely slip from her impressive norm.
Lorac has a wonderful sense of place and time. Her descriptions are wonderfully atmospheric, bringing the dirty, foggy London of the thirties alive to the reader. She also adds a dash of gothic with the gloomy, sinister, run-down tower of a building, the Belfry studio, known as “The Morgue” with its resident owl and bats. It is here that mysterious and inexplicable events occur, an unexplained assault on Grenville, an abandoned suitcase complete with passport is found, and more gruesome still, a body is found plastered into an alcove, minus head and hands to avoid identification, as in Christopher Bush’s The Case of the Bonfire Body.
Macdonald is Lorac’s go-to police detective and is an amiable guide through the intricacies of the plot and the rigours of the investigation. He has little sense of self-importance, diligently follows the clues wherever they may lead him, checks and tests alibis, and, apart from one leap of intuition, not prone to wild flights of fancy. He has a diligent team of officers to support him, whom he respects and allows to play their part, and operates with no little humour. Macdonald is also acute enough to realise that when all the parts of a case fit together a little too neatly, there is more to it than meets the eye.
This is certainly the case here, as Lorac has constructed a plot that twists and turns with five possible solutions until the final pieces of the jigsaw fall into place. The tension rises towards the end with a car chase. This is not the adrenaline-fuelled high-speed drama of modern crime dramas, but a drive across London in a police car with a fire engine which, ignominy of ignominies, overtakes them and whose crew save the day. And the culprit will be a surprise to many a reader, so beautifully does Lorac handle the intricacies of the plot, dropping a clue here and there, but managing to maintain enough of a mystery to make the revelation dramatic. It is impressive stuff and the quality of Lorac’s prose makes it not only a page-turner but also a joy to read.
The story begins with the aftermath of the funeral of Bruce Attleton’s distant Australian cousin, not just a device to introduce all the principal characters – even the mysterious Debrette makes an ex deus machina-like appearance by way of a telephone call that visibly distresses Bruce – but also to introduce the central theme of inheritance and the sudden deaths of those in line for the Old Soldier’s carefully curated inheritance. The conversation turns, as it does, to how to dispose of a body, one presciently suggesting plastering it up in the fabric of the building. The acute reader will observe who offers solutions and what they entail.
Both Debrette and Bruce disappear, there is a convoluted trail of possible beneficiaries across two lines of the family, one French, marital infidelities, thwarted matrimonial ambitions, possible blackmail, and an incredibly accident-prone Robert Grenville manages to get himself hit over the head not once but twice, and run over by a motor cycle to boot. It is great fun as Macdonald wrestles with the thorny problem with all the suspects having motive enough to arouse his suspicions.
I found it an intriguing and engaging mystery, beautifully written with vibrant characters. Lorac rarely lets you down.