Tag Archives: British Library Crime Classics

Bats In The Belfry

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.

Excellent Intentions

A review of Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Is it ever acceptable to murder someone who is so unpleasant that the world would be a better place without them? This is the subplot of Richard Hull’s intriguing, clever but ultimately slightly disappointing novel, Excellent Intentions, the second and last in his Inspector Fenby series, originally published in 1938 and reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series. Clearly the answer is no, but in a book written in the age when eugenics and worse was in vogue, the machinations of Justice Smith sees that the strict requirements of the law are met while a form of natural justice ultimately prevails.

I enjoyed Hull’s debut novel, The Murder of My Aunt, with its light-hearted style, gentle humour, and willingness to experiment with form. All of these characteristics are present in this book and what is particularly eye-catching is the way that he chooses to present the story. The structure of the book takes the form of a murder trial with the presentation of the case by the prosecution led by Anstruther Blayton, the defence, the judge’s summary, the jury’s deliberations and the verdict and its aftermath. It is only late on that the identity of who is standing in the dock, accused of the murder of Henry Cargate, who died in a railway carriage after snorting snuff laced with poison.

Interlaced within the reportage of the court case are the investigations into Cargate’s death by Inspector Fenby, the evidence provided by the suspects and their versions of events, and proofs of their statements. There are only four possible suspects, the vicar, Yockleton, a stamp dealer, McPherson, the butler, Raike, and the secretary, Joan Knox Forster, and, in truth, it is not too difficult to work out who is facing trial for their life, even before the big reveal.

Cargate is universally disliked, a rich man who has recently moved into the village to take up residence at Scotney End Hall. He delights in snubbing the village, preferring to hire staff and buy goods from outside of the locale. He is also very moody with a penchant, at least according to Raike, for playing tricks and accusing people of stealing from him.

On the day of the murder, he has an argument with the vicar over village matters, during which he accuses him of stealing the emerald from the inlay of his snuff box. In the afternoon he is visited by Macpherson, the meeting also ending in uproar as he accuses the stamp dealer of ruining his collection by replacing valuable stamps with fakes. The butler, familiar with Cargate’s moods, goes to elaborate lengths to construct an alibi for fear that he will be accused of stealing something or entering his study while he was not there, while Forster seethes with anger at Cargate’s politics.

Much hangs on the precise position of the snuff box and the bottle of poison, which Cargate had bought to destroy some wasps’ nests, both of which were in his study and both of which all of the suspects had the opportunity to tamper with when Cargate was momentarily out of the study. There is some lengthy, and sadly tedious, analysis of the possibilities – it was almost as if I was reading Wills Crofts at times – and more on the minutiae of stamp collecting, such as perforation sizes and overprinting, than I would care to know.

Each of the suspects had opportunities to mix the poison with the snuff and Fenby spends time in exploring the sightlines from the hallway into the study to test alibis. On the balance of probabilities, the right person is standing in the dock but the American alternative title to the book, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, rather gives the game away and points to the artifice in Judge Smith’s summing up which ensures that justice is seen to be and is done.

There are too many loose ends in the story for me and the motivation for murder was a bit thin. I enjoyed Hull’s novel approach to developing a murder mystery, his characterisation, and his wry sense of humour. With a stronger plot, this could have been even better.

Death In The Tunnel

A review of Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

Cecil John Charles Street was a prolific writer, using several noms de plume including John Rhode, Cecil Waye, and Miles Burton. Death in the Tunnel, originally published in 1936 and reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, is the thirteenth in his Desmond Merrion series. Merrion is an amateur sleuth, never afraid to think outside of the box and with a fertile and intuitive imagination, and a good friend of Inspector Arnold. The two collaborate to solve what is a tricky locked room mystery set in a railway carriage, first-class, of course, which slowed down when it was going through a tunnel.

My heart sank when I read the first paragraph, perhaps one of the least inviting openings to a novel in the 20th century. I feared I was going to be plunged headlong into an ersatz Wills Crofts saga signalling a tale where knowledge of the minutiae of train timetables was required, the story stopping to deal with interminable testing of alibis. Fortunately, Burton writes with a much lighter touch and while the story does lose its head of steam and careers worringly down branch lines from time to time, it arrives at its grand terminus with an elegant set of solutions to the problem at hand.

The train on which Saxonby, a successful and wealthy businessman, is travelling home on slows down when the driver spots a red signal in the tunnel. It turns green again and the train builds up pace, but during the time in the tunnel, Saxonby, who was alone in a locked compartment, was found dead, shot with a pistol which was lying nearby. It looked like a case of suicide, but there was no apparent reason why the businessman should have taken his own life.

There were no planned works in the tunnel and there were signal boxes at both ends of the tunnel from which there was a perfect view of who went into and out of the tunnel. And why was Saxonby’s railway ticket missing from his wallet? Arnold and Merrion suspect foul play but are perplexed as to how a murder could have taken place, let alone why or by whom, especially as Saxonby taken particular care to ensure that his closest relatives were out of the country at the time and that his confidential secretary was on a business trip to Manchester.

The resolution of how the murder was committed is ingenious, although I am sure I have come across it before in a short story. It leads Merrion to conclude that there were two people involved, A and B, and the rest of the book is taken up with identifying who they are and why they committed murder.

Arnold and Merrion uncover a plot to fleece a business rival and settle old scores, forgery, a duped former employee, the use of an actor to impersonate key characters, and duplicitous assistants. A seemingly cast-iron alibi is proven to be false when Merrion realises that a new-fangled form of transport had been used, an interesting insight into how that form of travel was developing but was not so common as to be considered as an obvious way to get somewhere in a hurry.

The narrative could have got bogged down with the minutiae of the investigations with its many dead ends, but Burton is judicious in his choice of leads to concentrate on. These lead to some engaging and entertaining scenes and encounters, while he disposes of the more mundane lines of enquiry with surprising rapidity. He provides enough information for the reader to deduce by whom and why the murder was committed. This coupled with a narrative laced with more than a touch of humour makes for an entertaining read.

These Names Make Clues

A review of These Names Make Clues by E C R Lorac

Edith Caroline Rivett wrote her Chief Inspector Macdonald series – it ran to some forty-eight books although, sadly, many still are out of print – under the nom de plume of E C R Lorac, the surname an anagram of an abbreviated version of her middle name and a further twenty-three under another pseudonym, Carol Carnac. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that her fascination with word play and anagrams should prove the inspiration for a murder mystery story.

Published in 1937, These Names Make Clues, labouring under a clunky title that at least has the merit of describing what is in the tin, has been reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series and is an enthralling, if somewhat overly convoluted, tale that maintains Lorac’s reputation as a fine writer of the genre, even if she does not hit the heights of some of her more distinguished and illustrious contemporaries.

Macdonald is surprised to receive an invitation to attend a party hosted by brother and sister, Graham and Susan Coombes. The theme of the party is a Treasure Hunt and each of the guests are assigned literary pseudonyms – Macdonald’s is Izaak Walton – and part of the evening’s fun is for the guests to unmask each other’s identities. Most are from the literary world and there is a frisson of excitement that a real-life detective will be pitting his wits against writers of detective fiction, about whose grasp of reality the earnest policeman had been somewhat scornful of in an earlier encounter with Graham Coombes, not realising he was an eminent publisher of works of that genre.

As the party gets into full swing, would you believe it, but the lights go out and once power is restored, the guest known as Samuel Pepys has disappeared, only to be found dead in the telephone room. Initially, it is thought that he had died of a heart attack, but it soon transpires that he was electrocuted when he broke a circuit rigged up in the bureau in the room. In a nice twist of irony Pepys is Gradien, whose speciality was writing thrillers which involved death from mechanical contraptions. Who killed him?

On the same evening, Elliott, Gradien’s agent and agent to some of the other guests, is found dead in his office. Was this murder or was it suicide and why was the pistol that killed him inside a grandfather clock? To add a further twist a couple of the guests thought that they saw someone looking like Elliott lurking around the party. Could it have been him, did he kill Gradien and then commit suicide in the comfort of his own office?

There are many twists and turns in a rather convoluted plot. The key to solving the mystery is in the title of the book, the literary pseudonyms given to some of the guests, if unscrambled, pointing a diligent sleuth in the right direction. Curiously, some of the attendees, as well as Macdonald, try their hand at solving the conundrum and arrive at the same point, as does Vernon, Macdonald’s journalist friend who seems to have swallowed a dictionary of Woosterisms. The motivations of some of the party goers in resolving the mystery are not necessarily aligned with Macdonald’s pursuit of justice.  

I had worked out who of the likely suspects had killed Gradien, before the reveal, but Lorac hardly plays fair with the reader, much of the information required to understand the motivation for the crime is not made available to the reader until Macdonald discloses it.

Elliott’s demise rather gets left in the background, as much there to sow confusion around Gradien’s murder as anything else, but it is explained and resolved as the book draws to a close. I’m sure Macdonald will be more circumspect as to which party invites he accepts in future. All in all, a clever, intriguing and entertaining piece of fiction.         

The Chianti Flask

A review of The Chianti Flask by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Originally published in 1934 and now reissued as part of the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, The Chianti Flask is more of a psychological novel than a piece of out and out detective fiction. There is a little bit of detective work towards the end of the book, but the book really reads like a hangover of those novels so beloved by the Victorians which explore a moral dilemma, a sort of second-class Trollope, with a healthy dose of xenophobia thrown in.

The book opens with the trial of Laura Dousland who is accused of the murder of her husband, Fordish, by poisoning. The case hinges on a Chianti flask. The Dousland’s Italian servant, Angelo Terugi, claimed that he left, as usual, a flask of Chianti on his master’s tray before he went out. Laura claimed that there was no such flask on the tray which she took up to her husband on that fateful night and the flask was not found.

Laura cuts a sympathetic figure in the courtroom, while Angelo’s clumsy English provokes waves of laughter and, anyway, you can never trust a foreigner. Laura is acquitted, principally as a result of the evidence of a young doctor, Mark Scrutton, who reveals Fordish’s fascination with poison. Although at liberty, her friends are astonished that she is not delighted and prefers to hide herself away. Inevitably, though, she falls in love with the dashing doctor.

Laura’s dilemma is whether she can run the risk the promising career of the doctor by associating herself, a woman who has been accused of a heinous crime, albeit acquitted, with him. Scrutton’s family also have qualms about the impact of their son’s reputation if he married the woman, although Scrutton, lovestruck, is less concerned, but as a keen horticulturalist, is keen to restore the garden of the Dousland’s austere house in an effort to improve its market price.

A bit of gardening leads to a discovery which throws a different perspective on to Laura and Mark’s dilemma.

Lowndes, sister of Hilaire Belloc, makes a better fist of what seems a rather unpromising storyline than I had anticipated, and the book is entertaining enough. It will not immediately appeal to those who like a straightforward murder mystery, but if you like a book that explores the psychological impact of being involved in a crime, even if ultimately acquitted, and the consequences of guilt by association, then this may well appeal to you.

I saw the book also as a bit of a proto-feminist tract. Laura was of middle-class stock but had no money and was forced to earn her living as a governess. She was bullied by her then employer to marry Fordish, a man considerably older than her and considered an odd fish even by his friends. Marriage would give her the security that living by her wits would not, although it was clearly an unsuitable match, which Laura had grave concerns about right at the start. For women in her position at the time, marriage was their only viable option. Inevitably, it was an unhappy marriage, and it is easy to see why Laura, desperate for a way out, could have considered the use of poison.  

It also raises the question of the stigma that can attach to women. Her prospects were damaged by her association with the crime, her name and reputation besmirched by having to stand trial, notwithstanding her satisfying the judge and jury of her innocence. Her so-called friends saw as a source of interest and scandal and it would take a brave or reckless man, such as Scrutton, to attempt her rehabilitation into society. Again, marriage was the only way out. There had to be a better way open to a woman in Laura’s situation.

An intriguing book rather than a classic.