Bats in the Belfry (1937): E.C.R. Lorac

★★★½

On a cold March evening, a group of friends amuse themselves with a morbid intellectual game. They compete to come up with the best way to dispose of an unwanted corpse. This all seems like a cheerfully shocking, daring kind of game in a chic drawing room near Regent’s Park, but within a few days it all starts to feel horribly prophetic. First, one of the party goes missing. Then a gruesome discovery raises the likelihood of murder, and the remaining members of the group find themselves under the unwelcome scrutiny of Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard. Under the bright beam of his eye, fissures and rivalries emerge, and he swiftly realises that there’s more to this particular case than meets the eye. A classic old-school murder mystery, first published in 1937, this is jolly engaging stuff with a powerful sense of place. London, from Regent’s Park to Notting Hill and the Strand, is just as central a character as any of our suspects. But now to the key question. Is Bruce Attleton really dead? And, if so, who killed him? And why?

It’s a strange group of people who gather in Bruce and Sybilla Attleton’s drawing room for that macabre discussion. The hosts themselves are locked into an unhappy marriage that Bruce is unwilling to break: having failed to fulfil his early promise as a writer, he now clings to the comforts his wife’s money supplies. Sybilla, cold and elegant, knows perfectly well that her husband is finding company elsewhere and longs for a divorce – although she seems to be playing exactly the same game. There’s Neil Rockingham, Bruce’s oldest friend, a languid dramatist; the red-faced stockbroker Thomas Burroughs; and the young journalist Robert Greville, who longs to marry Bruce’s ward Elizabeth Leigh, but is constantly thwarted by Bruce. And there’s Elizabeth herself, a cheerful jolly-hockey-sticks nineteen-year-old, who is described as a paragon of wholesome beauty (‘beautiful slim legs… Red-headed, white-skinned… fit for a Da Forli halo and lute‘) and who is treated by the other characters as a pretty child of perhaps nine or ten.

But there is another suspect. Who is Debrette, the mysterious foreigner whose telephone calls to Bruce have upset him so mightily? What does he want? And why does he have such extraordinary taste in houses? The eager young Greville heads west into the badlands of Notting Hill to beard Debrette in his den – the titular Belfry, a superb towering Gothic structure which is a character in its own right. Lorac has enormous fun with this. Before we ever see it, our imaginative juices have been unleashed by the description of ‘a tower at one end where owls nest, and bats. Great snakes! It’s a looney sort of hole.‘ And then, when we finally reach Notting Hill on a cold, dark night, and see the Belfry for ourselves, we get a scene that could have been lifted from a Hammer horror movie: ‘gargoyles stood out against the crazily luminous rain, and the long roof of the main body of the building showed black against the sky.‘ If I were Lorac, I wouldn’t have been able to resist adding a streak of lightning. The Belfry is, of course, as sinister as it promises to be, and everything points back to the devilish Debrette.

I can’t decide whether Lorac is being tongue-in-cheek about the way others behave to Elizabeth. She must be. Lorac herself – Edith Caroline Rivett, who gained her pseudonym by reversing her nickname Carol – was an independent woman who never married and made a nice little career for herself. And so it doesn’t feel possible, to me, that she’s being entirely serious when Greville (who, of course, has an interest in the matter) exclaims: ‘Wouldn’t it be better for Liza to be married and have a home of her own, than to go trailing round with all these over-sophisticated, man-hunting, pseudo-intellectual females who see life all awry?‘ God save us all, of course, from over-sophisticated, man-hunting, pseudo-intellectual females. I actually think Elizabeth’s club (the Junior Minerva in Grosvenor Square) sounds rather fabulous, and no doubt full of fascinating women – friends at this club originally set the playful intellectual problem of the corpse-disposal, which so occupies our characters.

And it’s noticeable that it’s only Lorac’s characters who think Elizabeth should be wrapped in cotton and hidden away. The avuncular Rockingham scoffs when Elizabeth contemplates cancelling a trip to the theatre, on learning that her beloved guardian has (apparently) been horribly murdered. ‘Don’t you be so foolish, my child… A good dinner and a play are the very things you need. Off with you! Go and get into your most frivolous frock and forget all about these grisly topics.’ Obviously, we poor little women can’t deal with horrible things. Lorac, however, shows us Elizabeth being quite proactive and having a good deal of common sense – I would have very much liked to have seen more of her, or even to have her and MacDonald working together to solve the murder. I think she has the brains. Lorac, of course, was assumed to be a man by her fans at the time she published these novels, and perhaps she could only subtly suggest that Elizabeth has just as much pluck and intelligence as those around her. I’d love to read a spin-off series with Elizabeth and the ladies of the Junior Minerva solving crimes – perhaps a slightly more grown-up version of the Murder Most Unladylike duo.

So, this is fun – but very much of its time. I really did enjoy the London setting, especially because I know relatively well the areas in which the story takes place. The real problem for me was the complexity of the denouement, which disproves the theory that the simplest answer is usually the right one. The solution is one of such torturous intricacy that – although you can piece it together in retrospect – you can’t help feeling the murderer had way too much time on their hands, and would have been much better off doing a nice straightforward murder and then learning to crochet, or collecting stamps, or binge-watching The Crown on Netflix. Instead, you feel that the problem is not so much the murder but the intense egotism that creates such a convoluted backstory. But of course, that’s the point, isn’t it? If we could guess it easily, then it wouldn’t be half so much fun. And this was certainly enjoyable. The British Library Crime Classics series has unearthed other books by Lorac, which I’d like to read in due course; though I have several of their other golden-age mysteries lined up to tackle first. The perfect kind of entertainment for a cold, almost-March evening…

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Apologies for the very poor image of Lorac. It’s the only one I can find on the Internet. If anyone knows of a better one, please do let me know!

 

 

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