- By E.C.R. Lorac
- First published: UK: Collins, 1937. Reprinted by the British Library, 2018.
The prolific Edith Caroline Rivett (1894–1958) wrote nearly 50 detective stories as E.C.R. Lorac and 20-odd as Carol Carnac. In her best books, she combined the careful plotting of the Humdrum school with the deft character-drawing and social observation of Agatha Christie. The Birmingham Post, for instance, considered her “the best writer of the roman policier in the country”. She could also, though, be very boring; many of her later books take place in the depths of the countryside. (I have never understood the English fascination with farming.)
Bats in the Belfry is definitely one of the good Loracs – a meaty problem told with zest. A headless, handless corpse is found in a niche in a deserted artist’s studio. Is it Bruce Attleton, the novelist who behaved strangely then disappeared, or is it Debrette, the mysterious blackmailing bearded foreigner? Does Debrette even exist? And why have so many of the Attleton clan died recently?
Plenty of ‘bastards’, drunken parties, and cops punched below the belt. In her spare time, Ms. Rivett embroidered for her church.
There seemed to be an atmosphere of disaster about the Attleton family; so many had met with untimely deaths. But Bruce Attleton still continued to joke cynically of the lack of staying power in his unlucky family. It was the whim of the gods that Bruce himself should be the next. He is called away on a mysterious errand to Paris and disappears completely, until eventually his body is found in a ramshackle studio called the Belfry. It is an Inspector Macdonald case, of course, and that detective has a pretty problem to solve. E. C. R. Lorac has written several highly successful detective stories, and Bats in the Belfry must surely rank as one of the most outstanding in quality.
Observer (Torquemada, 14th February 1937): It is unlikely that a course of detective fiction will ever form part of the curriculum at Hendon, but if it should come to do so, Chief Inspector Macdonald would serve as an admirable exemplar of all (save for his last essay in ecstatic guessing) that a young detective officer should aim to be. He mellows and improves at each appearance, and though Mr. Lorac has not, in Bats in the Belfry, given us much more than a set of lay figures in his other characters, there is no falling off in the admirable Scot. I think, however, that he should by now have learned the correct wording of the official “caution”, and, though I would not myself care to dogmatise, I hope that Mr. Lorac made sure in advance that the police have power to detain a suspect for forty-eight hours without bringing a charge against him. Apart from the actors in it, and regarded only as a crime problem, Bats in the Belfry is well up to the high standard which Mr. Lorac has set himself. It has a touch of the bizarre which is not over exploited, and the reader’s suspicion is cunningly and unobtrusively directed hither and yon.
Times Literary Supplement (John Everard Gurdon, 20th March 1937): Bruce Attleton led a sufficiently secretive and irregular life for his friends to suspect blackmail when he appeared to be pursued by a certain Debrette, a bearded stranger of foreign appearance. For this reason they feared that the victim had murdered his persecutor when Attleton suddenly vanished and Debrette’s studio was found to be deserted. On learning the circumstances Inspector Macdonald concurred in this view until he discovered a corpse walled up in a niche in the studio, for the body, although headless and armless, proved to be that of Attleton.
Arguing that it was the blackmailer who had turned murderer the Inspector felt himself to be on safe ground until Debrette was seen near Charing Cross, still wearing the unmistakable and incriminating beard. Such foolhardiness seemed incredible… The plot is intricate and the characterisation sure, with one exception. To identify that exception would be to anticipate the solution.
Glasgow Herald: Mr. Lorac ranks high among detective-story writers, but he has never concocted a more tantalising cat’s-cradle of a mystery than this.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): An early Lorac and a disappointment. The first half of the story is cluttered by the attempt to blacken most of the characters and provide too many motives, meanwhile giving away the too-good-to-be-true murderer. Insp. Macdonald deals with the mess, which has only a neat twist about passports to redeem it.