Review published on January 24, 2018.
Bats in the Belfry, an intricate and atmospheric “Golden Age” crime caper by E.C.R. Lorac, begins with a party thrown by Bruce Attleton, former literary superstar and current gadabout. After all, what better way to recuperate following the funeral of one of your closest relatives than to host a party attended by people who, generally speaking, can’t stand you? Attleton’s cousin Anthony Fell had been killed in a car accident, the morbid nature of which causes the party guests to speculate as to the best way to dispose of a body and thereby get away with murder. Attleton’s actress wife Sybilla, his ward Elizabeth Leigh, his good friend Neil Rockingham, journalist Robert Grenville and Sybilla’s “friend” Thomas Burroughs all offer suggestions on perfecting the fine art of murder, which proves to be a tad awkward for them when Attleton later disappears.
In the months leading up to his disappearance, Attleton had been receiving threatening messages from a man known as Debrette. So, when he fails to arrive in Paris as arranged, his friends set out to track down Debrette, who turns out to be a sculptor, at his sinister Notting Hill studio, the Belfry (AKA the Morgue, which isn’t at all an ominous sign). They don’t find Debrette, but they do find Attleton’s suitcase and passport, which seems suspicious enough to warrant calling in the police. In the fullness of time, a body is discovered hidden in the Belfry. Foul play is clearly afoot but, since the corpse is lacking both a head and hands, it is not clear who has actually been murdered.
Has Debrette killed Attleton? Has Attleton killed Debrette? Has some other unfortunate party stumbled in and been murdered in the midst of the Debrette vs. Attleton furore? It’s all rather perplexing. It’s fortunate then that so many people are keen to have a crack at solving the case. The principal detective is the rather nondescript Inspector Macdonald, whose approach to criminal investigation is certainly methodical and highly evidence-based (he’s particularly keen on the [repeated] questioning of witnesses), which is fairly unusual among detectives operating during the “Golden Age of Murder”. This mundane approach helps to add a sense of realism to a story that could easily have turned into a gothic mistaken identity farce. Saying that, in addition to a plethora of other police officers, Macdonald is aided by a masseur, a dentist, an estate agent, a butler and a French maid, so his investigation is not totally lacking in literary flourishes.
In addition to the official investigation, Neil Rockingham and Robert Grenville conduct their own enquiry into Attleton’s disappearance, which results in a fair few hijinks and bodily injuries. Although they are both friends of Attleton and seem to be committed to tracking down the elusive Debrette, neither of them are above suspicion, since they both withhold evidence and seemingly stumble into encounters vital to the investigation without the support of witnesses. In Grenville’s case, his involvement is further complicated by his desire to marry Elizabeth Leigh, a marriage that Attleton had forbidden. Coupled with the absenteeism and subsequent suspicious behaviour of Sybilla Attleton and Thomas Burroughs, there really is no shortage of people with an interest in the body found in the Belfry.
The mystery contained in Bats in the Belfry is certainly a convoluted business but, happily, E.C.R. Lorac subscribed to the notion of “playing fair” when constructing a murder mystery and so there are plenty of clues available to help readers solve the case. Inspector Macdonald is able to satisfactorily wrap things up and offer an explanation for the various bouts of odd behaviour that he encounters while investigating the case. The actual conclusion of the story is perhaps a little more action-packed than might be expected based on how the case progressed overall, but it works well and serves to add some additional excitement to Macdonald’s otherwise rather sedate investigation. Bats in the Belfry is a complex tale of murder and intrigue and it’s a very welcome new addition to the British Library Crime Classics series.
Erin Britton 4/4
Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac
British Library Publishing 9780712352550 pbk Jan 2018