WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY MARTIN EDWARDS
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.
About the Author
E.C.R. LORAC was a pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958) who was a prolific writer of crime fiction from the 1930s to the 1950s, and a member of the prestigious Detection Club. Her books have been almost entirely neglected since her death, but deserve rediscovery as fine examples of classic British crime fiction in its golden age.
Read an Excerpt
"As funerals go, it was quite a snappy effort. No dawdling, well up to time and all that, but, my godfathers! What a farce to have to go to it at all. Didn't make a ha'porth of difference to the party concerned."
Bruce Attleton mixed himself a whisky and soda calculated to reduce funereal impressions to a minimum, and swallowed it rather more quickly than was customary in such a gathering. Neil Rockingham holding in his own hand a glass containing a milder version of the same drink, raised an angular eyebrow as he replied:
"Well, funerals never worry me. One good point about them — and weddings too, for that matter — is that they do get on with the doings — preamble, main theme, and blessing for curtain, and there you are. Snappy, as you say. Not like some of these infernal parties where you stand on one leg and wonder when you can decently depart. I do like a focus-point to an entertainment."
Bruce grinned, and his dark, sardonic face lighted up as he threw himself into a comfortable chair by the log fire. It was March, and the evenings were cold, so that the warm, slightly scented air of Sybilla Attleton's drawing-room struck a man as cosy after the raw air outside. A nice room, this of Sybilla's, meditated Rockingham. Peaceful, well-designed, chairs large enough to sit in, and plenty of them, not too many fallals for a man to trip over, and yet definitely a woman's room, with its colour scheme of faint grey and silver, lilac and deep blue. A sociable room, but not the right spot to swill down whisky like that nervy blighter, Bruce, was doing.
Sybilla, an exquisite figure in silver lamé with a short ermine cloak round her shoulders, lighted a Balkan Sobranje, and made a little face at her husband.
"I gather the funeral did make you shed a tear after all, Bruce — not for sorrow about our dear departed brother, but a tear of self-indulgent sympathy, that you should have been called upon to make the frightful effort of standing by a graveside."
"Caustic, what?" Robert Grenville, a little embarrassed by the tone of Sybilla's voice, decided that jocularity was the vein to follow. "If it's not being unreasonably inquisitive, who was the party concerned, so to speak? The bury-ee, or interee, or what you call him."
"The 'dear departed' or the 'late lamented' is the accepted term," replied Bruce amiably enough. "On this occasion, it was a young chap named Anthony Fell — a cousin of sorts, though I can't tell you the exact degree. Family ramifications always beat me. However, this one turned up from Australia a few months ago — architect, hearty sort of chap. Doing quite nicely in the interim, building large-scale blocks on the modern housing principle, complete with the best in plumbing. Unfortunately he didn't manage the plumbing of his own car as well as he did that of his working-class flats. Came blinding down Porlock Hill in a fog, in a last year's racing model — a yellow sports car that made me sick to look at it. His brakes failed just when he needed 'em at a pinch and he somersaulted — what ho, she bumps!" He picked his glass up again and looked towards the tantalus. "So that was that, and we buried what was left of him to-day. Old Neil here, came in as best man — very sporting of him. Not my idea of a good day, though."
"Miserable business," said Rockingham soberly enough. "Fell only showed me the car a few days ago, gassing about how he always vetted it himself. Whale of a chap with engines according to his own estimate."
"Poor young man — and you grudged him a few hours at his one and only funeral," put in Elizabeth Leigh. She was sitting on the lilac tuffet, warming her beautiful slim legs at the good heat of the cedarwood fire. Red-headed, white-skinned, with the round face of very young girlhood, Elizabeth appeared fit for a Da Forti halo and lute when she looked pensive, as now. "Dead in a strange land, and no one to shed a tear. If you'd told me about it, I'd have come myself, and cast rose leaves on the coffin."
"And what good would that have done, Eliza?" inquired Bruce. "Nix, and you know it. Our family doesn't seem to have any staying power. They all pop off early, except the Old Soldier. He's about a hundred, and still going strong. Some one told me he bought an annuity when he was fifty-five, and got it cheap because he'd a dicky heart. The company he bought it from have written him off as a bad debt. They've given up hoping he'll die, and call him the Old Soldier. They don't, you know."
"Oh, but he must, sometime," put in Sybilla. "Some one said to me the other day that when you're born there's only one thing which can be said about you with any certainty, and that is that you'll die — sometime. Nothing else is certain, but that is."
"Cheery thought." Thomas Burroughs had been sitting silent, just behind Sybilla, until that moment, and the sound of his voice made Bruce Attleton scowl. It was a deep voice, and resonant, but Bruce said it sounded fat, "reeked of money" — and the rather stout, heavy-jowled Burroughs certainly was not hard-up.
"Nice way of greeting the son and heir," went on the latter. "Here you are, little 'un, and you're for it one of these fine days. Just a matter of time, what?"
"And the beautiful part is that no one knows when their time will be up," said Elizabeth, in her sweetest voice. She disliked Burroughs — one of the few things she had in common with her guardian, Bruce Attleton. "A slip, a skid, a fit, an aneurism, a syncope, and the lustiest becomes a mere bury-ee. I like that word," she added, her ingenuous blue eyes gazing hard at the wealthy stockbroker.
"Food for worms," put in Robert Grenville blithely. "I say, jolly topics we seem to be on. All flesh is grass, I know; still, it doesn't do to ponder over it."
"By way of cheering you all up a bit, I'll tell you of a competition that's been set for the monthly evening at my club," went on Elizabeth, averting her eyes from Burroughs' heavy face with a nicely calculated little moue of distaste. "We always have an intellectual exercise of sorts, and notice is given of it beforehand. The problem this month is as follows: If you were landed with a corpse on your hands, by what method could you dispose of it so as to avoid any future liabilities? Highest marks will be given for a method which is not only ingenious, but possesses the elements of practical common sense."
There was an outbreak of exclamations. Robert Grenville chuckled, and said, "By Gad, that's a corker!"
Attleton laughed and refilled his glass, saying, "Give us a moment to think it out, Liza."
Burroughs expostulated. "Rotten morbid ideas you modern girls go in for. Club, indeed! You want spanking and sending to bed."
Sybilla said languidly, "Don't be Victorian, Tommy. Everyone plays these murder games. Just use your wits as though there were money in it."
Rockingham, standing by the fire, smiled down at Elizabeth. He was a tall fellow, very fair, looking older than his forty-two years by reason of premature baldness. He had a very fine head, and the smooth lofty brow sloped back slightly to meet the magnificent domed skull. His hair, fair and smooth, was thick enough at the back, but his baldness gave him a professorial look, at odds with his fresh-skinned face. Rockingham took Elizabeth's problem quite seriously in the manner of one who loves a problem for its own sake.
"We need some more data," he said to her. "Are we to assume that we've corpsed the subject ourselves, or are we just obliging a friend?"
"I asked that too," said Elizabeth, replying to his friendly twinkle with a smile of angelic virtue. "It is assumed that one has created the corpse oneself, either by accident or malice aforethought, as may be most convenient."
"It's a nice point," said Bruce. "Imagine that I'd done some one in, here on this hearth-rug, and I wanted to get 'em clear out of the way, so as not to leave a trace — not too easy."
"I think you're being too casual." This time it was Grenville who spoke. It was Elizabeth's problem, and he particularly wanted to stand well with Elizabeth. "Never go and murder any one in a hurry — that's the first axiom. Think it all out carefully."
"Go on," said Elizabeth. "Elaborate. I want ideas."
"Assume that I'm going to murder a chap named Tom Brown. I've got to work it so that no one will know I was the last person whom he was seen with. I can't make an appointment with him in case any one else hears about it." Grenville was leaning forward now, his chin on his fists, his brow corrugated in thought. "I'd go to one of those dud car-marts — one of the places where you can get something that'll go for a couple of hundred miles for about ten pounds. I'd pay a deposit and drive out with some old car one wet evening, and I'd meet old Tom Brown on his way home from the station or something and say, 'Rotten evening, old boy. What about a lift?' Once he'd got in. I'd bat him one on the boko, and drive on to a little place I'd have taken on the edge of the outer suburbs — simple life and all that, every tenant builds his own house. I'd have got the garage up, and a nice hole ready in the floor, and I'd bring old Tom in and shift a bit of concrete on top of him, and then return the car to the mart and pick up my deposit. No connection between me and Tom, and the car."
"Not too good," said Elizabeth; "and rotten as a story. It might work, but I couldn't hope to win a prize with a garage floor as depository."
"That's perfectly true," said Rockingham; "though the touch about giving Tom a lift unexpectedly on a wet evening appeals to me as simple and effective. Pass that, cut out the garage floor, and drive Tom out to one of those dene holes somewhere and just tip him in. They're said to be almost bottomless."
"You tire me." It was Sybilla's languid voice which uttered this deflating phrase. "If there are such things as dene holes, they must be about chock-full with fictitious corpses. I'm tired of them."
"Well, what's yours?" asked Elizabeth eagerly.
Sybilla drew in a long breath of cigarette smoke.
"I'm not up to batting people over the head," she said dreamily. "I have a fancy for electricity. I'd connect up the power to the water in the wash-hand basin and say, 'Darling, do have a wash,' and when all that was over ..." She tilted her head up meditatively. "A sunk bath, in the floor, you know. Tilt him in, and then concrete, plenty of it, and the bath mat on top. All quite simple."
"Good God! Sybilla, I wouldn't have believed you'd have thought about anything so — so —" gasped Burroughs, and Attleton laughed.
"Gives you a turn, old boy? Quite in the Borgia and Lady Macbeth tradition, when you thought Sybilla only played drawing-room comedy?"
"Never mind that," put in Elizabeth. "I think Sybilla's got more originality than you others."
"Quite a nice touch, that, about setting old Tom into the permanent fabric of the establishment," murmured Attleton, and Rockingham, seeing Burroughs' bulging eyes, put in:
"It's only a matter of exercising the imagination, Burroughs. Don't you read thrillers?"
"But I say, Elizabeth, you haven't told us your brain-wave yet," said Grenville. "Out with it! I bet it's pretty grim."
"It is," said Elizabeth complacently. "Much grimmer than Sybilla's, then. You know there are a lot of those big Georgian churches in London with lovely crypts — where they put people in family vaults? I know one in Bloomsbury. The furnace for heating is in the vaults, and it's quite easy to find the way down and slip in without being noticed. In my story, you get old Tom to come exploring with you, and bat him over the head at the further end of the vault, where it's very dark, and you come back next day and hide till night, and then you get busy unscrewing one of the old coffins — they're on ledges, you know, and just pop Tom in and do it up again."
"Good lord! The kid's got ideas, Neil. What about that for a Grand Guignol sketch? You're a dramatist. Can't you see the possibilities?"
"I certainly can," said Rockingham slowly, "but the theme's almost too macabre for production. It has the makings of a good short story, Elizabeth. Why not try it?"
"It wouldn't work — not in practice," said Burroughs, helping himself to another drink. "You'd have the deuce of a time getting the screws out of the coffin, and there'd be a lead lining inside."
"I'd thought of all that," said Elizabeth calmly. "A drop of oil in the screws, and garden secateurs for the lead lining. Would you like to come there with me just to get the atmosphere?" She smiled impudently at the heavily-built, well-tailored stockbroker, and Bruce put in with a laugh:
"Don't you risk it, Burroughs. She might feel disposed to put her theory into practice. Thanks for the tip, Liza. I'll bear it in mind in case of need."
"If you want to visit the scene of the projected crime, why not invite me?" Grenville pleaded to Elizabeth. "I'd make the perfect collaborator — and if the actual murder wasn't necessary, we might screw a column out of the idea and share the boodle."
"If ever you take to crime, Elizabeth, take my tip and play a lone hand," said Sybilla severely. "All this accomplice business is childish. Meantime, if you can bear it, my child, come and read over that new script of Vine's. I'm not sure if I like my part. The men can have a rubber of bridge to amuse themselves."
She got up with the deliberate grace characteristic of her, and with the calm determination which Rockingham had long noted as being an essential of her apparently lazy make-up, said good-night to her guests.
"Good-night, Tom. I shall be out of town till the end of the month, remember. Half-past one at the Berkeley Grill on the 1st — All Fool's Day. Good-night, Mr. Rockingham. Thank you for holding Bruce's hand at the funeral. Goodnight, Mr. Grenville. Leave Elizabeth to her own murders. Come along, angel face."
She drew Elizabeth's arm through her own and they went out of the room, leaving the four men standing by the fire. Burroughs made no bones about taking his departure once Sybilla had gone.
"I've got to go down to my club to see a fellow —" he began, and Bruce Attleton cut in:
"... about a dog. That's all right, Thomas. Good-night."
Burroughs pursed up his mouth in a manner that deepened the heavy lines running from nose to lip and replied, "That's about the size of it. Good-night, Attleton. You don't look too fit. Cut up about that young cousin of yours. Shocking thing. Too much wild driving about. Safety first's my motto. 'Night, Rockingham. 'Night."
He nodded to Grenville and Bruce strolled to the door with him and chatted casually while the stockbroker got into his coat. Returning to the drawing-room, he said:
"Come along into the library, Neil, and you, Grenville. It's more comfortable in there."
Rockingham shook his head.
"No. We'll bung off. You don't want us here, I know that. I'm sorry you were cut up about that accident to young Fell. I feel a bit unhappy about it. He did show me his damned car, and I know a sight more about them than he did. I ought to have looked at his brakes."
"Oh, rot! That's hair-splitting in an attempt to blame yourself, old man. Besides, I don't believe in theories of accident. I'm a fatalist. Young Anthony had got his ticket, his time was up, and if it hadn't been faulty brakes on Porlock Hill, it'd have been a train smash or a pneumonia bug. It's quite true, I was cut up. I liked the beggar, what I saw of him, and considering how our whole family's been at loggerheads for generations, it was rather refreshing to find a cousin I liked. They all quarrelled like Kilkenny cats. Old Uncle Adam began it — the Old Soldier. He quarrelled with the whole clan and later generations kept it up. We're a nice crowd!"
He turned away from the fire, adding, "I was damn grateful to you for coming. I loathe funerals. I'll go and wash it off, soak in a Turkish bath for an hour or two. Good-night, old boy. See you in Paris next week." He turned to Grenville, adding, "And look here, young fella me lad, I'm always glad to see you here, but don't go imagining I've changed my mind. I haven't. Cheer ho! Weller'll let you out."
Weller was the butler, who presided over his duties in the Attletons' picturesque little house in Park Village South with the air of a pontiff, and a skill which was half the secret of the perfectly run house. Every one liked Weller, and particularly the servants who worked under him, consequently Sybilla Attleton was able to keep a contented domestic staff in a house which had basement kitchens and awkward stairs and cellars.
Just as Bruce Attleton opened the drawing-room the butler appeared and glanced at his master, who said, "Well, what is it now?" in his quick irritable way.
"I didn't get the opportunity of telling you earlier, sir. A gentleman named Debrette phoned while you were out."
"Oh, he did, did he?" snapped Attleton. "If he rings up again, tell him I'll bash his bloody head in. Got that? No other answer."
Excerpted from "Bats in the Belfry"
Copyright © 2018 Estate of E.C.R. Lorac.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
My talented uncle once told me while most renowned photographers are dominated by males, but the few female who excel in the field usually bring unexpected excitements over their male competitors'. Reasons for that are because female usually pay more attention to detail, and the ways they approach art are very different from that of the male. The same philosophy, of course, applies to writing as well. "Bats in the Belfry" is one of the fine examples in the genre from the golden age of crime fiction. The title already says it all because the phrase means "eccentric, crazy." The plot is one crazy journey from start to finish! The master mind behind the crimes gives the authority a puzzling case to crack. An interesting case about police procedural.Bewared! There are enough drama to keep readers' minds busy and perplexed until the last page. E.C.R.. Lorac was a fine female writer and I enjoyed her writing immensely. I definitely want to check out her other works which have been re-released.
Characterization is sacrificed for plot in Bats in the Belfry. There are a multitude of characters in Bats in the Belfry. Most are only vaguely fleshed out. We first meet the main players at a funeral where they begin to discuss how they would hide a dead body. Old Agatha Christie paperbacks always included a cast of characters at the beginning of the book. However, this book doesn’t have one so here is my own: Bruce Attleton, former bestselling author but now nearly destitute Sybilla Attleton, wife of Bruce, famous actress and family breadwinner Elizabeth Leigh, Bruce’s ward Debrette, a mysterious foreigner who wants to speak desperately to Bruce Thomas Burroughs, rich family friend perhaps too interested in Sybilla Neil Rockingham, another family friend who is worried about Bruce’s reaction to Debrette Robert Grenville, hopeful suitor of Elizabeth who is willing to check into Debrette for Neil The plot has so many twists that admittedly I gave up trying to decipher the victim much less the murderer by the mid-point. If you wait until the end, the murderer is easily determined by seeing who has not either been killed or at least wounded yet. Written in 1937, the convoluted plot in Bats in the Belfry holds up well for modern audiences. The best part was some of the 30s slang like ker-wite, bally-nix and prosy. I was surprised that most of the words were found by my ereader simply by clicking on the word so I would recommend reading this book on an ereader just so you aren’t constantly looking up words on your phone. I was also surprised by the use of nouns for verbs (that practice that drives me crazy now) like corpsed for killed. The reverse was also true. For example, bury-ee is used for corpse. Bats in the Belfry was a good, not great, golden-age British mystery. It is recommended for those readers that look more for plot than characterization in their fiction. Thanks to the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, and NetGalley for an advanced copy.