E.C.R. Lorac is one of the pseudonyms used by the prolific British crime author Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958) who until more recently had largely been forgotten. I’ve read a couple of her books and I’ve liked this one the best so far. It’s the thirteenth book out of forty-six written by Lorac that feature Chief Inspector Macdonald, a hard-working Scot with a good sense of humour.
Bats in the Belfry is a clever murder mystery that begins with a discussion among a group of people when one of them posed a hypothetical murder game question:
‘If you were landed with a corpse on your hands, by what method could you dispose of it so to avoid any future liabilities?’
When one of the people present at the discussion goes missing and then an unidentified body is found in strange circumstances, everyone who was involved in the discussion comes under suspicion. In the course of the story the police investigation focusses on each individual and their relationship to the missing man.
The story has an intricate plot and the London setting is dark, eerie and evocative. There is a constant sense that something nasty is going to occur at any time and as the police investigation continues the constant switch between persons suspected at different times had me changing my mind about the possible identity of the murderer. I ended up having no idea, although I have to admit that I’d make a lousy detective. I was just hoping it wasn’t one of the suspects that I liked.
‘The two men stepped out unto the cold, white mist, in which all sound seemed to be muffled, as is the curious paradox of fogs. In actual fact the silence was due to the slowing down of the traffic.’
The police procedural work in the case at a time when there was minimal technology and everything was basically done by hand was an interesting glimpse into police work back then.
‘Police work is always thorough and orderly, seldom spectacular, and in this occasion three experts in the detection of crime set to work as calmly – but more energetically – than the usual phlegmatic British workmen…It was no nice job.’
At different times Macdonald felt certain he’d uncovered the mystery and was sure of his suspect only to discover another aspect to the situation. One suspect commented after Macdonald had his fingerprints taken:
‘Confound him! He’ll be trying to tie the beastly unknown round my neck, like an albatross. He took my finger-prints, and now he’ll say he found ‘em plastered all over the Belfry, and run me in for doing an anonymous murder. I always said the chap looked too much like Cassius, lean and hungry, and all that.’
I enjoyed the humour…Macdonald went to the hospital with a badly injured and half-drowned man he was anxious to interview and entreated the surgeon to do the best for his patient:
‘All right, we will, since you make such a point of it,’ retorted the surgeon. ‘We generally kill ‘em in the lift, to save trouble, especially when we’re over full, as we always are.’
‘He’ll survive – with luck,’ commented the doctor, ‘always assuming that he doesn’t get pneumonia, which he probably will, after lying out in the sleet with a cracked skull…If he hadn’t had the world’s thickest skull he wouldn’t be alive now.’
‘If he hadn’t had the world’s thickest skull in another sense he wouldn’t be where he is now,’ said Macdonald.
It’s a pleasure to read crime fiction that not only has an intriguing plot but is also written in a literary style. The dialogue is very 1930’s with quite a bit of the slang used in that period. The author’s description of London’s old houses that survived while the city sprang up around them is excellent as is her general descriptive ability which lifts her writing to another level. More of her books are being reprinted by the British Library Crime Classics but the copy I read came from the Large Print section of our local library. This seems to be the place to find some of these forgotten gems. D.E. Stevenson is another author I’ve found hiding on those shelves. I don’t like reading the large print but if I can’t get a copy of the book anywhere else, I put up with it.
‘Death is a great alchemist, purging away the grossness which disfigures many a living face, sapping the colour, smoothing the contours.’
2 thoughts on “Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac (1937)”
I am reading a book by Dorothy Sayers called The 5 Red Herrings that is similar to this book in quite a few ways: 1) Scottish connection 2) written in 1930s 3) multiple suspects 4) borrowed from library 5 ) part of a series using the same protagonist
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Hi Dave, I remember that one – artists in Scotland! I haven’t read Sayers for a few years but she is good value. 🙂