Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac

Starring MacDonald of the Yard…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bruce Attleton doesn’t turn up in Paris as planned, his friend Neil Rockingham begins to worry. A strange man called Debrette had been harrassing Attleton, so Rockingham sets another friend, young Robert Grenville, the task of tracking Debrette down. Things take a sinister turn when Grenville finds Attleton’s suticase, complete with passport, in the cellar of the Belfry – an old building where Debrette had been living until very recently. Time to bring in Inspector MacDonald of the Yard…

This is an excellent early example of the police procedural novel, mixed with just enough amateur detection from young Grenville to make it fun and to keep the authentic Golden Age feel. Grenville plays a very minor second fiddle to the professional Inspector MacDonald though, and the police methods throughout have a feeling of authenticity that is rare in my experience of early crime fiction. MacDonald doesn’t work alone – he heads a team, all allocated with different tasks and responsibilities suited to their rank, and we get a clear picture of the painstaking detection that lies behind MacDonald’s brilliance.

The plot is nicely convoluted, involving murder, possible blackmail, secrets within families, a bit of adultery, and a solution that I only got to about five pages before MacDonald revealed all. MacDonald does, at one point, make a rather unbelievable leap of intuition, but for the most part the mystery is solved by conscientious fact-checking of alibis and identities, following suspects and making good use of forensic evidence.

Challenge details:
Book: 42
Subject Heading: Capital Crimes
Publication Year: 1937

The book is based in London – one of my favourite locations for crime novels – and Lorac is wonderfully descriptive in her writing, especially in the way she highlights the ancient and modern jostling side by side in the city, with short alleys leading from offices and factories to quiet little residential squares that seem unchanged by the passing centuries. The Belfry itself is a spooky place and Lorac gets in some nice little touches of horror to tingle the reader’s spine. It is of course written in the third person past tense, as all good fiction should be. (Opinionated? Moi? 😉 ) Back in the Golden Age, most crime authors wrote well but Lorac’s writing impressed me more than most, often having quite a literary feel without ever becoming pretentious.

In the tangled networks of courts and alleys which lie between Fleet Street and Holboro, Great Turnstile and Farringdon Street, there still exist certain small houses which were built not long after the great fire of 1666. It was in one of these that Grenville had been fortunate enough to find quarters – an absurd little red-tiled house of two stories, with a grass plot in front of it and its immediate neighbours. On all sides around this ancient oasis of greenery towered enormous blocks which reverberated day and night with the roar and clatter of printing presses, of restaurant activities, with the incessant whirr of the machinery which maintains the civilisation of this bewildering epoch of ours…

As with a lot of Golden Age fiction, there’s a romantic sub-plot – young Grenville is in love with Elizabeth, Attleton’s ward. They are both fun characters – Grenville is headstrong and occasionally foolish, always putting himself in danger and often paying the price for it, while Elizabeth is a modern girl, living in her club and with a mind and a will of her own. They give the reader someone to root for amidst the rest of the other rather unpleasant characters who are assembled as victims, suspects or both. Being modern young people, they talk in a kind of slang not far removed from how Wodehouse characters speak, and this adds a nice element of humour, keeping the overall tone light. MacDonald is no slouch in the slang department too, and I loved how Lorac gave each of the major characters such distinctive voices and personalities.

I can’t begin to imagine why a book as good as this one would ever have been allowed to become “forgotten”. The British Library Crime Classics can be a bit variable in quality, but it’s finding these occasional little gems among them that makes the series so enjoyable. One of their best, and happily they’ve reissued another of Lorac’s, Fire in the Thatch, which I’m looking forward to reading soon. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, British Library.

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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Many years ago, so the story goes, a celebrated newspaper publisher sent a telegram to a noted astronomer.
….“Wire collect immediately, five hundred words on whether there is life on Mars.”
….The astronomer dutifully replied, “Nobody knows. Nobody knows. Nobody knows…” two hundred fifty times. But despite this confession of ignorance asserted with dogged persistence by an expert, no-one paid any heed, and from that time to this we hear authoritative pronouncements by those who think they have deduced life on Mars and by those who think they have excluded it. Some people very much want there to be life on Mars; others very much want there to be no life on Mars. There have been excesses in both camps. These strong passions have somewhat frayed the tolerance for ambiguity that is essential to science. There seem to be many people who simply wish to be told an answer, any answer, and thereby avoid the burden of keeping two mutually exclusive possibilities in their heads at the same time.

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….From that moment, I conceived it decreed, not that I should be a minister of the gospel, but a champion of it, to cut off the enemies of the Lord from the face of the earth; and I rejoiced in the commission, finding it more congenial to my nature to be cutting sinners off with the sword, than to be haranguing them from the pulpit, striving to produce an effect, which God, by his act of absolute predestination, had forever rendered impracticable. The more I pondered on these things, the more I saw of the folly and inconsistency of ministers, in spending their lives, striving and remonstrating with sinners, in order to do that which they had it not in their power to do. Seeing that God had from all eternity decided the fate of every individual that was to be born of woman, how vain was it in man to endeavour to save those whom their Maker had, by an unchangeable decree, doomed to destruction.

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….A gaunt tower showed up against the lowering sky, which was lit by the reflection of Neon lights in the West End. At the corner of the tower gargoyles stood out against the crazily luminous rain, and the long roof of the main body of the building showed black against the sky.
….It was a queer-looking building to find among the prosperous houses of that pleasant-looking road, and Grenville was aware of a feeling of apprehension, quite unreasonable, at the sight of the dark massive structure. “The Morgue” – and a sculptor who hanged himself from a beam. “Jolly!” he said to himself, but having got so far he wasn’t going to funk that dark-looking pile. He went up to the iron gate which stood between the two imposing stone pillars and shook it, and found that it swung to his hand. Pushing it open, he went in, up a stone-flagged path, and found himself faced by an arched doorway, so overgrown with ivy that it was obvious it could not have been opened for years.

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….The storm, unleashed two days earlier, did not seem to have any intention of abating, and upon entering it, he felt how his body and his soul sank in the ice, while the air hurt the skin on his face. He took a few steps toward the street from which he could make out the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains, and it was as if he had hugged the white cloud until he melted into it. He whistled, demanding Maya’s presence, and was relieved when the dog approached him. Resting his hand on the animal’s head, he noticed how the snow began to cover him. If he remained there ten or fifteen minutes, he would turn into a frozen mass and his heart would stop, despite the coats. It could be a good solution, he thought. But if my henchmen won’t kill me yet, he told himself, I won’t do their work for them. Guided by Maya, he walked the few feet back to the cabin: Lev Davidovich knew that as long as he had life left in him, he still had bullets to shoot as well.

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Ruler: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Will you honour the King’s English?
Candidate: I will.

Extract from the initiation ritual for the Detection Club in the Thirties. (I think we should bring these rules back for current crime fiction…)

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 148…

A third batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

Well, the TBR has leapt up this week by a massive 8 to 224! It’s not as bad as it seems though – in fact, it’s great! It happened because I found a website http://www.fadedpage.com which has downloadable versions of several of the vintage crime books for this challenge that I hadn’t yet obtained. So nine books moved from my wishlist to the TBR. Therefore, as the mathematicians among you will have realised, the underlying trend is down…

And coincidentally I’ve just about finished all the books from the second batch of MMM books, so here goes for the third batch…

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

This one was actually already on my TBR long before I started the challenge – put there following an excellent review from Helen at She Reads Novels

The Blurb says: Milne takes readers to the Red House, a comfortable residence in the placid English countryside that is the bachelor home of Mr. Mark Ablett. While visiting this cosy retreat, amateur detective Anthony Gillingham and his chum, Bill Beverley, investigate their genial host’s disappearance and its connection with a mysterious shooting. Was the victim, whose body was found after a heated exchange with the host, shot in an act of self-defence? If so, why did the host flee, and if not, what drove him to murder?

Challenge details

Book No: 17

Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age 

Publication Year: 1922

Martin Edwards says: “A.A. Milne is now so closely associated with Winnie-the-Pooh and children’s fiction that it comes as a surprise to many readers to learn that. . . he wrote an immensely popular detective novel. The Red House Mystery is a country-house mystery, so deftly written that it achieved widespread acclaim.”

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The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Impossible theories, a baffled policeman and a gifted amateur detective. And as if that’s not enough, a touch of romance…

The Blurb says: Samuel Whitehead, the new landlord of the Rose and Crown, is a stranger in the lonely East Anglian village of High Eldersham. When the newcomer is stabbed to death in his pub, and Scotland Yard are called to the scene, it seems that the veil dividing High Eldersham from the outside world is about to be lifted.

Detective-Inspector Young forms a theory about the case so utterly impossible that merely entertaining the suspicion makes him doubt his own sanity. Surrounded by sinister forces beyond his understanding, and feeling the need of rational assistance, he calls on a brilliant amateur and ‘living encyclopaedia’, Desmond Merrion. Soon Merrion falls for the charms of a young woman in the village, Mavis Owerton. But does Mavis know more about the secrets of the village than she is willing to admit?

Challenge details

Book No: 33

Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden

Publication Year: 1930

Edwards says: “…Barzun and Taylor argued that Miles Burton was working in the Gothic tradition of Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and was the first of ‘the moderns’ to do so in the detective genre.”

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Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac

Courtesy of the British Library. There’s no place quite like foggy old London as a setting for vintage crime… 

The Blurb says: Bruce Attleton dazzled London’s literary scene with his first two novels but his early promise did not bear fruit. His wife Sybilla is a glittering actress, unforgiving of Bruce’s failure, and the couple lead separate lives in their house at Regent’s Park. When Bruce is called away on a sudden trip to Paris, he vanishes completely until his suitcase and passport are found in a sinister artist’s studio, the Belfry, in a crumbling house in Notting Hill. Inspector Macdonald must uncover Bruce’s secrets, and find out the identity of his mysterious blackmailer. This intricate mystery from a classic writer is set in a superbly evoked London of the 1930s.

Challenge details

Book No: 42

Subject Heading: Capital Crimes

Publication Year: 1937

Edwards says: “The plot is elaborate, the characterisation crisp and the atmosphere of the dark London streets well evoked.

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The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

I’ve read and enjoyed a Continental Op short story before so am intrigued to see how well the character works in a full-length novel…

The Blurb says: Everything about the Leggett diamond heist indicated to the Continental Op that it was an inside job. From the stray diamond found in the yard to the eyewitness accounts of a “strange man” casing the house, everything was just too pat. Gabrielle Dain-Leggett has enough secrets to fill a closet, and when she disappears shortly after the robbery, she becomes the Op’s prime suspect. But her father, Edgar Leggett, keeps some strange company himself and has a dark side the moon would envy. Before he can solve the riddle of the diamond theft, the Continental Op must first solve the mystery of this strange family.

Challenge details

Book No: 91

Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic

Publication Year: 1929

Edwards says: “His execution of the concept is artistically flawed, but although the story is eccentric and melodramatic, it is also oddly compelling.”

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads. The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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PS I’ve fallen badly behind with blog reading, review writing, reading and life in general so I’m taking a little break. Back soon! Don’t get up to anything exciting while my back’s turned…