Bats in the Belfy

Written by E C R Lorac

Review written by LJ Hurst

Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung

Bats in the Belfy
The British Library Publishing Division
RRP: £8.99
Released: January 10 2018

1937’s Bats in the Belfry has been one of E C R Lorac’s most unobtainable titles. In twenty-odd years of searching - this is the first time I have been able to read it.  Lorac’s work fell into a number of periods. In the late 1930s she tended to concentrate her mysteries in London (among a well-to-do, artistic set), which often seemed a tad artificial. During the Second World War when these characters were put under strain during the Blitz everything improved (including Murder by Matchlight). The novels she wrote at the end of the War, particularly Policemen in the Precinct, are superb studies of a changing society.

‘The Belfry’ of the title is the nickname given to a redundant church in north London (in 1937) to which various characters who live in pleasant houses in Regent’s Park (and unknown courts off Fleet Street), find their way into suspicious circumstances. A smart but struggling writer either leaves the country or disappears, though no one is particularly bothered at first; particularly not his wife (who uses the opportunity) to head into the New Forest with her wealthy lover.

A strange character who sounds as if he is in permanent but ridiculous disguise – hair, beard and thick glasses – has been bothering the missing Bruce Attleton, giving his name as Debrette, and it is he who has rented the eponymous Belfry. That is one reason why Attleton’s friends go there when they decide Attleton needs to be found, but it is not until Lorac’s Chief Inspector Macdonald makes his visit that bodies begin to be unearthed.

Macdonald is a man of ratiocination, but like the French Inspector Maigret he will use his team of detectives as well as calling on the uniformed branch all over the country when necessary. The motives for the crimes revolve around inheritance. While the story partly depends on the characters not understanding the laws of intestacy – which, if you don’t understand them, is going to play havoc with what you will (or will not) receive, nor comprehending the laws of guardianship, which would also affect one’s finances. It is not clear if Lorac herself misunderstood them but went ahead anyway constructing her plot regardless. Certainly the final chapter is very dense as Macdonald explains everything.

Politics and social attitudes show up in different ways: Sybilla Attleton’s week with her lover is treated with disdain but while it makes it difficult for her to provide an alibi it is not used as an automatic belief that she must be guilty. On the streets of this early-1937 London there are fascist demonstrations holding up the traffic, mentioned only for the inconvenience to travellers (and a-historically called ‘fascisti’, who were a British movement of the 1920s, rather than ‘fascists’, as these would have been members of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists), but in the final chapter there is an interesting revelation of semitism/anti-semitism behind one character’s actions – probably, and contrary to the ‘fascisti’ reference, historically correct.

Bats in the Belfry is not one of Lorac’s greatest works but it is a good introduction. Murder by Matchlight and Policemen in the Precinct have also been republished in past years, so can be rediscovered. The next time you are in your favourite bookshop emptying the latest Crime Classics into your book-bag make sure that Bats in the Belfry is one of them.

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