It begins with an after-funeral gathering at a home in Regent’s Park in London. Bruce Attleton, an author whose literary promise seems to have petered out after his first two novels, and his actress wife Sybilla are the hosts. The funeral was for Attleton’s Australian cousin, killed in an automobile accident. The guests include a stockbroker, some friends, Attleton’s ward, and a former journalist who’s keen to marry the ward. The discussion turns to theoretical murder, and how one might accomplish it and not get caught.
A few days later, Attleton leaves for Paris on business and his wife heads to parts unknown, perhaps for some plastic surgery. But it turns out that he never reached Paris; in fact, he never left England, and he has disappeared without a trace. Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called in, and he soon discovers that no one knows Mrs. Attleton’s whereabouts, either. A mysterious stranger is implicated, and he’s traced to an old ruin of a place in Notting Hill. Then he disappears as well, Macdonald finds a body sealed up in the house (just like what was suggested at the gathering), and everyone involved appears to have a motive in wanting Attleton dead.
Bats in the Belfry: A London Mystery was first published in 1937 by E.C.R. Lorac and has been republished in the British Library Crime Classics series. And a London mystery it is indeed, with the action occurring in Notting Hill, Mayfair, Fleet Street, Scotland Yard, and other parts of the city.
Lorac (1894-1958) is relatively unknown today, but she was one of the lights of the Golden Age of Mystery in Great Britain and a member of the , which included such mystery writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton (Chesterton was the first president). Her real name was Edith Caroline Rivett, and she was one prolific writer. She published some 49 mystery novels under the Lorac pen name (most of them Chief Inspector Macdonald mysteries) and 23 under the pen name of Carol Carnac.
The story is full of twists and turns. Macdonald slowly comes to understand that the solution to the mystery (and the deaths) lies buried deep in the past. Slowly he closes in on the suspect he knows to be the killer.
Bats in the Belfry is a notable addition to the Crime Classics series, with a solid introduction by mystery writer Martin Edwards. It will have you looking over your shoulder.
Top photograph: Fleet Street, London, in the 1930s, via The Londonist.