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

Bats in the Belfrystar filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars
If you seek evidence of my tendency to over-commit where GAD is concerned, look no further than my reading and reviewing two E.C.R. Lorac titles and then buying a further, ahem, six before actually getting round to reading any more.  For all her perceived failings — not as rigorous as Christie, not as refined as Sayers, not as dull as Marsh — I’ve found my first few books by Edith Caroline Rivett to distinguish themselves in her approaching fairly standard setups with an air of trying to do something a little uncommon.  We’re not reinventing the wheel, but we are putting a different tread on the tyres.

Bats in the Belfry (1937) begins with a setup so classic in its ingredients that you know exactly what’s going to happen from the off: a long-lost cousin returned from Australia, the “intellectual challenge” of a murder game casually discussed amongst the well-to-do at a post-funeral gathering (How Best to Commit and The Hide a Murder?), and then the disappearance of one of those present and appearance of an apparent blackmailer who may or may not be involved and lives in the creepy old building of the title.  It’s no headlong rush, we’re gently introduced to each element and then equally gently moved on, but before too long things are beginning to look a little fishy and so Inspector James (or is it Robert?) Macdonald is called in to investigate.

There is much I admire about Lorac’s writing, but top of the list is the casual intelligence she bestows upon her reader.  The central problem here — and it becomes more problematic as it goes, grown but never bloviated by sudden and contradictory phone calls, characters appearing and disappearing, murder, and all manner of questions about identity and location — is the kind of thing that almost requires a table to keep in check.  Most normal readers could well be expected to founder amidst all the possibilities, especially as you clearly think of a few permutations that Lorac doesn’t acknowledge, and so you’re playing a dual game of What She Has Said and What She Hasn’t Said, knowing that under the aegis of the tenets of detective fiction all points must be considered and that Lorac clearly isn’t doing this.

And then Macdonald will turn around mid-conversation and quietly and calmly go “Well, of course I’ve thought of that, and I’ve thought of this and this and this, too”.  A lesser author would have their sleuth sit and sweat bullets over every possible combination of events; Lorac, to my reading, trusts that you, dear reader, are intelligent enough to do that on your own.  It’s a low-key and possibly too-casual approach to the rigour of detective plotting, and one that leaves her vulnerable to accusations of over-embarrassment in her plotting — after all, she’s free to claim anything this way — but it’s an interesting reflection on fair play: if the situation is understood enough for you to speculate yourself on the available evidence, surely the information has been fairly communicated.  I’m sure others will disagree, but I fail to see why we should be so grudging in giving Lorac the benefit of the doubt.

Macdonald, then, is a low-key copper for a low-key writer.  No, he has no immediately-discernable personality as such, but Lorac isn’t one for glitter bombs to highlight his basic decency: witness how he suggests a subordinate be taken to assist at a burning building because the man “loves fires”, his reaction upon feeling the rough edge of a doctor’s tongue when committing a witness to the latter’s care, and especially the contempt he keeps bottled up when interviewing the wife of the missing man in her “silver boudoir”.  And Lorac’s writing elsewhere is so keen in its insight and mood that I think it’s about time we a) saw more of this stuff republished an b) considered who out of March and Mitchell gets booted from that fourth pedestal (clue: it’s both of them):

There was something absurd about the feeling of tension that possessed him, here in the heart of the West End, with the smug-looking door-plates of fashionable specialists all around him.

Or perhaps you’d prefer:

Police work is always thorough and orderly, seldom spectacular, and on this occasion three experts in the detection of crime set to work as calmly — but more energetically — than [sic] the usual phlegmatic British workman.

Yes, there are flaws — the structure of this has given me an idea for my next Spoiler Warning post because, well, it’s a relatively easy problem to solve, even if it is very enjoyable — but it would be churlish to pretend that a puzzle must be insoluble for the book to have merit.  Plus, it’s complemented by some subtle contemporary details, like a reference to someone’s health being “ruined by after-effects of war-time gas” and a character being said to have “footed it like the knife when he saw me”, and I’m a sucker for anything like that in this era of this genre of novel.

On this book alone, no, Lorac is not the archetypal bastion of classic detection, but there’s talent enough here to be excited about the prospect of more of her output coming to light.  For a genre that admits a number of approaches and styles, an author who brings this rarefied touch to what we’ve seen done so many times before should surely be a cause for celebration.  So can someone please republish the bastard things?  I’m spending enough money hoarding Freeman Wills Crofts books as it is…

~

Current and forthcoming E.C.R. Lorac reviews on The Invisible Event:

Bats in the Belfry (1937)
The Devil and the C.I.D. (1938)
Slippery Staircase (1938)
Black Beadle (1939)
Case in the Clinic (1941)
The Sixteenth Stair (1942)
Murder by Matchlight (1945)
Fire in the Thatch (1946)

~

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Fingers for Ransom from last week because both feature a corpse whose identity has been, shall we say, disguised.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Title contains two words beginning with the same letter.

37 thoughts on “#379: Bats in the Belfry (1937) by E.C.R. Lorac

  1. I’ve been somewhat disappointed in the quality of much of the Golden Age stuff that’s been dredged up from obscurity lately … but Lorac is a significant exception. Intelligence that shines through every word, clever plots, a light touch, and the underlying assumption that the reader is following right along and paying attention. What’s not to like?
    A full reprint of Lorac/Carnac, please, and a concomitant dethroning of both Mitchell and Marsh. From your lips to the mystery gods’ ears!

    • Excellent, I’m delighted that it’s not just me who sees this potential in Carnac/Lorac. I’m not calling her the second coming of Christie (or, better yet, Carr), but I think she may get pilloried for faults in her writing that aren’t actually there — namely, not doing all the work for you and requiring you to put some stuff together without being walked through it. If this is seen by some as a lack of fidelity, let’s say, then I feel sad for those people missing out on being treated this respectfully by an author 🙂

      • If I interpret your comments correctly then they remind me of one of the characteristics that I enjoy in Christianna Brand’s work – she lets you piece things together.

        At the end of Green for Danger (which you wickedly under-appreciate), Brand doesn’t drag out some big explanation of how everything clicked into place. And yet you don’t need it. You can fit the pieces together on your own. In part that’s because Brand lays everything out so openly that your mind instantly fills the gaps once the identity of the killer is known.

        Fog of Doubt is similar. I imagine that most readers figure out the puzzle a few pages before Brand provides the certainty – because she lets you. And again, she never goes back through and explains how everything worked out – she leaves that to you to piece together. And you can.

  2. I’m rather keen to try out Lorac. I’ve never read anything by her but I’ve not heard a bad word about her work from those who have done so either. Seeing as the British Library has two of her novels out already and another on the way later in the year, I see myself dipping in sooner rather than later.

    • My one complaint about these BL reissues is that they’re reprinting Murder by Matchlight, which has already been reprinted fairly recently. There are, like, 70 other titles by her that haven’t been reprinted in decades, and I’d rather see one of them, to be honest. But I’m sure a) the BL knows what they’re doing, and b) it’s probably more complicated than that.

      • Yes, I understand that but I *think* Murder by Matchlight has gone out of print? Anyway, from an entirely selfish point of view, I was pleased by the announcement as I’d not picked up the book, and the cover of the BL reissue looks very attractive.

        • Don’t know if it’s out of print, I bought mine off Amazon in the last few months. But admittedly the BL version will have larger coverage and availability (being in bookshops an’ all), so at least it will give a larger audience than before the chance to discover it. Sometimes I have to remember that it’s not always all about me… 🙂

  3. For a long time I thought I was alone in my enjoyment of her work, and I wholeheartedly agree that more reprints are in order – particularly of her work under the name Carol Carnac, none of which seems to be in print at present.

  4. Yet again the star rating at the top spoilt my experience of reading the review. >.< I need those photos of fluffy apricot poodles to compensate for the spoiler…

    What I find curious about Lorac is that more than one review would concur with your assessment: while she is 'not the archetypal bastion of classic detection', there is nevertheless 'excite[ment] about the prospect of more of her output coming to light'. Even though most of the reviews of her novels are somewhat lukewarm.

    Then again, it's partly my fault for leaving the best to the last – thanks to Curt's recommendation, my copies of 'Murder at the Mill-race' and 'Death of a Martinet' are collecting dust on the shelf. I didn't think 'Death by Matchlight' was good, though I enjoyed 'Rope's End, Rogue's End' more. So perhaps there is hope!

    • Haha, I’ll have to investigate “click here to see the rating” technology…

      The difficulty in judging how good or otherwise Loprac/Carnca is comes from so little of her work being available, and so there being very few people who really have an overview. If Christie only had Death in the Clouds, Destination Unknown, Appointment with Death, and the Tommy and Tuppence novels in print we’d wonder what the fuss about her was. Carnac was as prolific, yet simply out of the price range of the average GAD reader, and so we can’t really know. I just think there’s been enough good stuff in the three I’ve read to be excited about; if the other 67 get reprinted tomorrow and are all garbage, I’ll still stand by the assertion that, in the absence of any other evidence, optimism seemed the most sensible response!

  5. I have the two BL reissues sat on my TBR pile but they keep getting trumped by new stuff. You have convinced me to give it a try a little bit sooner.

    • Hey, I feel that pain. I’ve had Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain on my TBR for months, but I have Christopher Bush, Erle Stanley Gardner, Freeman Wills Crofts, a bunch of YA detective books, and even some self-published fiction creeping ahead of it, and as those get picked off more creep in. Life is tough… 🙂

      • It is! It doesnt help that my blogging chums have such superb taste either. Can everyone just take a month and read books I have already finished, please? 😉

        • Haha, this reminds me of the time I saw two women in a bookshop and one said to the other “So, are you going to buy anything?” only to get the reply “No, I’m reading a book at the moment…I don’t need another one” — man, did I admire her self-control!

  6. I haven’t read her yet. A couple of years ago, the titles you have purchased flitted across my Amazon recommendations, and I considered her. I don’t know why I didn’t buy anything. But here’s the thing: you’re saying there were SEVENTY titles?!? And yet she has all but disappeared from public discussion. This fascinates me – and makes me wonder what’s wrong with this picture? What does Lorac lack that Christie or even Marsh (not March) possesses? We still see Marsh in the bookstores and celebrate the publication of a continuation novel. (I’m not saying this to criticize Marsh: I have read them all.) So go ahead and make your case for Lorac, I’m interested . . . but a bigger discussion awaits us here.

    Meanwhile . . . you wrote: “The difficulty in judging how good or otherwise Loprac/Carnca is . . . ”
    Loprac? Carnca? I’m trying to figure this out: either you dictate your posts into your phone, you have a serious opioid addiction, or you have very tiny hands . . .

    Do spill.

  7. Judging by the titles that I’ve read (which is quite a good proportion of both Lorac and Carnac titles) most of her work, though not perhaps in the absolute top bracket, have some elusive quality which makes them enjoyable to read both for the first time and subsequently. Occasionally she has a bit of cluing worthy of Ms. Christie, and sometimes there is a twist where someone turns out not to be what they seem. Extreme weather conditions seem to be a theme that comes up more than once – eg the Carnac title Impact of Evidence takes place during severe flooding in a Welsh border area.I’ll certainly be watching for further reprints.

    • Superb, I shall look forward to whatever happens after the BL bring up Murder by Matchlight (which I already own, see above list). Delighted there’s further quality to be found in her work; you’d like to think someone would become a bit good at this sort of thing after a while, eh?

      Though, mind you, it didn’t work out that way for Gladys Mitchell…

  8. I had a look at one of her scarcer titles a few years back:
    https://noah-stewart.com/2015/08/03/death-at-dykes-corner-by-e-c-r-lorac-1940/
    One of the things I said there, and that I think is still quite true, is that there is no single title that everyone agrees is her best, and that’s a problem. So, no “Poisoned Chocolates Case” through which an enterprising publisher can manage to reprint the remainder of Berkeley’s backlist. Each Lorac title has to be marketed carefully because (a) no one’s ever heard of her, and (b) no single title is sufficiently striking that it will cause you to read the remainder of her work. Every book is good; almost none of them are great.

    • “no single title is sufficiently striking that it will cause you to read the remainder of her work”

      Ah, but in absence of evidence, doe-eyed dreamers like JJ and I will imagine there is that looked over classic just waiting to be discovered…

    • Every book is good; almost none of them are great.

      …and yet Marsh and Mitchell don’t fulfil even the first requirement here and are fully available…

      • …and yet Marsh and Mitchell don’t fulfil even the first requirement here and are fully available…

        I’ve only read one of Lorac’s books. My impression is that she’s an average second-rank writer, which means she’s better than Marsh or Mitchell or Sayers or Allingham.

        But that might be a harsh judgment based on one book so I guess I should give her another chance.

        • I think Lorac’s approach shares more in common with Allingham than anyone else, as she would be a damn sight duller if she simply stayed well inside the bounds of pure convention. For my money, I see a lot in her approaches that I really like, which makes up for her plots being often not the most complex or misleading. More reading will, as you say, either bear this out of show me to be wildly misleading myself…

  9. I’ve read Rope’s end, Rogue’s end and Checkmate to murder. The first one is a very clever locked room mystery, and the second I enjoyed the reading a lot. And the inspector is Robert “Jock” Macdonald, a scottish literate policeman.

    • Lorac’s take on a locked room is something I’d be really interested to see; I think she leaves enough space in her plotting that covering the requirements of that demanding form could actually be quite fascinating.

      Hey, British Library, I gotta question for ya…!

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