Bats in the Belfrey – A London Mystery by E.C.R Lorac – A standout crime Classic

Bats in the Belfry

This latest novel in the British Library Crime Classic series is a fast paced, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable novel. The plot keeps moving, the characters feel like real people, and the investigating detective combines methodical reaction to the crimes with intuitive problem solving. The London setting of 1937 combines the best of the atmospheric pre blitz buildings and surprising settings with a tight radius of possible activity. The characters involved soon become established and represent a genuine range of people and indeed potential suspects and victims. No minor character is without purpose and relevance; as even less senior police officers contribute their best, and Lorac skilfully moves the focus from one character to another while maintaining the onward momentum of events.

The book openings with a gathering of friends and associates at the home of Bruce Attleton, formerly a successful author but now dependant on his wife Sybilla, an immensely popular actress. They have become distanced from each other as financial arrangements and extra marital concerns have intervened. The occasion is the funeral of Bruce’s second relation to die suddenly in recent months, but there is a lack of genuine feeling for the deceased. Bruce’s ward, Elizabeth, recounts a macabre game that she is playing with her women’s club. As the group disperses, her would be suitor receives an invitation from an older acquaintance to investigate a mysterious caller. Granville, a dedicated young journalist, discovers a sinister building where artists have worked, but the decaying edifice suggests foul play has occurred, especially as Bruce’s effects are soon discovered. It soon emerges that alibis need to be checked and identities established as no one seems above suspicion. There is room for grim comedy when the emergency doctor suggests that every casualty is important to the police, as if the doctors have no concern for their patients unless especially requested. As Chief Inspector Macdonald tries unsuccessfully to cosh himself in imitation of an incident, the doctor regrets that no film company is available.

This is a book which draws the reader in and keeps a fascination right until the end. There is no wasted time, events crowd in, and the characters jostle for attention. It flows well as the atmosphere lends credence to the events, and the threatening sinister studio almost develops into a character in its own right.  It is so engaging that it cannot be ignored, as each twist and turn succeeds another, and there is no obvious, indisputable suspect. It may be responsible for sleep deprivation accordingly! Apparently Lorac, otherwise Edith Rivett, left some seventy novels at her death in 1958, and in this volume she shows her consummate skill in both plotting and characterisation. I hope that the British Library have more of her books in their list, as this is a standout novel in their crime reprints series.

There has been a scarcity of posts over the last week as I have been visiting friends near Cambridge and Bury St Edmunds. Needless to say, I fitted in some bookshops! I bought this book and read it by Friday, so you can see just how good I thought it was… I hope to get a few more posts written soon as soon as possible as I have tracked down some really interesting crime novels from the superb selection in Heffers, Cambridge, as well as actually reading some Dean Street Press gems. Watch this space for more! We also fitted in a moving visit to the American War Cemetery, of which I hope to add a link to Northern Vicar’s blog when he writes it. As our M.A. course effectively restarts tomorrow, time may become limited. Ho hum!

 

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries: A Virago Modern Classic

An early Thirkell, and typically light and gentle, Wild Strawberries is more of a comedy and character introduction than many of the later novels. This is a book which introduces characters such as Lady Emily, who is remembered with affection throughout all of the Barsetshire Chronicles. It also introduces the charming and feckless David, the gentle Agnes who achieves much, but almost unseen, and the first sighting of Clarissa and the other children who grow up to wreak havoc in the later books. The book is not only introductory as many of the characters have their own moment before they become background to later stories.

This book, like Thirkell’s other early novels, takes place in a long summer of peace before the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1934 the emerging BBC is offering employment to women graduates, while many girls are limited to naïve assumptions about love and marriage. Not that such girls cannot hold their own socially when lunches, parties and other events decide true affections. Lady Emily is a high maintenance lady in that she has much “portable property”, being glasses, scarves, art supplies and so on. She also delights in meddling in every arrangement, creating confusion in a gentle way. She accidentally arranges for the boring Mr Holt to visit to everyone’s inconvenience, but Agnes’ child fixation soon agitates him beyond measure. Mary experiences a crush on David, John emerges from his great loss, and Martin is a teenager quickly distracted by new ideas. The French family who come as paying guests to the Vicarage are a beautifully drawn family of recognisable individuals, including the boastful Madam Boulle.

This could be seen as a trivial book of small events and delicate romance. It is a comedy of manners of a long lost age, when servants were not a problem but had their individual quirks and traditions. There are lovely set pieces of a church service nearly wrecked by Lady Emily’s interventions, all well intentioned, the concert which bewilders Mary but is a tried and tested formula, and the celebration of Martin’s birthday which echoes a party held to mark his father’s coming of age before his wartime death. This book lacks the strong stories of the later books, especially the wartime novels, and some of the sadness and loss which typify them. In some ways it is an introduction to the Barsetshire Chronicles set in a blissful summer, before the sharp class distinctions and anti – foreigner language creeps in, but others may find it too light. In the context of all of Thirkell’s books it is indeed a lightweight read, but its reissue in the Virago Modern Classics series in 2012 has made it more available and a favourite re read mentioned very favourably in contemporary novels such as Peck’s “Bewildering Cares”. High recommendation indeed!

I am working my way through the Angela Thirkell books that can be easily found as a result of the VMC reprints of the last few years. I am not sure if they will bring any more out, so I am still collecting the original books where I can find them! Hay on Wye was an obvious hunting ground, and I found “The Old Bank House ” at Elizabeth Gaskell’s house. Hooray for accessible historic buildings!

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell

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This is an early Thirkell novel (1939), and introduces several characters to the Barsetshire Chronicles. It also reflects a balmy pre war time of peaceful pursuits, gentle romances and ladies with companions, mourning clothes and investments. The Brandon family, headed by a widow whose effortless conquest of all the males around her is a favourite of Thirkell’s; but here it is managed that no hearts are broken and others are grateful, even if unconsciously, for her matchmaking efforts. There is a Will, cameos of such favourite characters as the Morlands, and overall such a delightful late summer atmosphere of late summer calm and sunshine that it is a worthy addition to the series, but would work as a stand alone novel.

Lavinia Brandon has long come to terms with being a widow, with two grown up children, Francis and Delia, and a small but devoted domestic staff. Her comfortable income is watched over by the devoted but bombastic Sir Edmund, and she is on excellent terms with her neighbours including Mr Miller, the local Vicar. Her gentle idyll is disturbed by a summons to her late husband’s aunt, Miss Brandon, and meets the efficient but frustrated companion, Miss Morris. She and her offspring meet Hilary Grant, a young man who is instantly smitten by the older woman’s charms. His mother is an intruding character who spends her life in Italy, and is a never ending source of embarrassment to him. As it becomes obvious that Miss Brandon is dying, subtle guesses are made as to who is to benefit from her will, and to their credit no one wants to inherit her large decaying house. Much confusion and cross purposes emerge as everyone grows a little older and perhaps wiser as to their feelings and potential relationships.

The plot of this novel is slight, yet effective, and its chief delight is the characters. My favourite is Delia, constantly pursued by Nurse for clothes fittings, fascinated by injury and illness as an observer, still young enough to be innocent in her friendship emerging over stolen fruit from the garden. Francis is an amusing young man, devoted to his mother and completely aware of her little tricks of attraction for the love struck men who surround her. Aunt Sissie is a formidable character who actually understands more than she is credited with, and deals with unwanted visitors easily. I particularly enjoyed the account of the Village fete, with Lavinia’s vagueness being familiar to fans of the other novels, and the efficiency of Miss Morris contrasting with the Vicar’s confusion.  There are also scenes where some books are nearly read aloud, but are continually diverted.

This book is of its time, an entertaining novel of family and friends unaware of impending war and shortages, diverting the reader’s interest down comforting paths of middle class concerns without peril. There is a certain element of snobbishness about the descriptions of the servants and their feuds, but no one is ever despised or insulted. The description of a poor family is a little patronising, but good is always is always intended. As with all Thirkell’s novels, there are weaker moments, but overall it is a splendidly comfortable, sunny read from a lost or even imagined era.

This is one of the easiest Thirkell’s to locate, as Virago reprinted it in their Modern Classics series in 2014. I have probably read it three times?!? While getting ready to teach in Derby library the other day I spotted a copy of “Love at All Ages”, a late Thirkell and one of the last novels I have not read! I am trying to remedy this, and am already getting annoyed with George Knox…

What Dread Hand? by Elizabeth Gill

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It is a great tragedy that owing to her early death, Elizabeth Gill only published three novels, of which this is the middle one, set like the first in France. When sent a copy to review by Dean Street Press, for which many thanks, I knew nothing of this careful but convoluted novel. I was really impressed. In the introduction by Curtis Evans, her novels were described in a contemporary review as “she writes detective stories like a novelist” and I found that it was true. Her allusions to poetry, styles of plays and general descriptions make this book read more like a novel than a whodunit, but the plotting kept me guessing until the end.

Julia Dallas is the central character in this novel; the story is told from her point of view in all its honest awkwardness and snap decisions. It is her fiancé, the multi- talented Charles Kulligrew, who falls victim to a murderous attack during the premiere of a play, and she is honest enough to realise that while she is left distraught, she is not truly broken by his death; that she has lost a dear and true friend rather than the only possible love of her life.  Her confused emotions lead her to some mistakes as well as inspired actions while in pursuit of the true killer, happily she is accompanied by the artist Benvenuto Brown, whose other skill is the detecting of murderers. This is no working through the list of suspects; each character who falls under suspicion is a real person with a backstory and a credible reason for being on the scene of the murder.

The setting of this mystery in a London theatre of the 1930s shows assurance of backstage knowledge and audience appreciation. The pursuit of the guilty takes place across France which would normally reduce my interest, but the places are so well described that even the less well travelled reader can picture the excesses of Monte Carlo and the small villages which are traversed by a combination of lovingly described cars. The crimes of the infamous Tiger which dominate the book provide motives, opportunities and even alibis for other activities. There is the shadow of the First World War, leaving its scars on some of the combatants, but this book is rarely miserable. There are moments of farce, as Julia finds herself locked in, consuming alcohol which affects her actions, and acting on suspicions half formed and uncertain. She is not the hero of the tale; this is 1932 after all, but her progress guides the reader to their own conclusions. I cannot say that I warmed to the character of Brown at all, but he is the amateur detective who works with the police to a satisfactory conclusion, and is there for his cousin throughout.

This is a rich book of descriptive power and consistent characters. The countryside is lush and the people feel real. The clothes worn by the heroine are lovingly described, and her genuine jealousy of Louise heartfelt. I really wanted to find out what happened in this mystery, loved the characters and will be seeking out the other two Elizabeth Gill books very soon!

Lots of things are happening over the next few weeks, so there may be gaps and then 4 blog tour stops! I also have a guest post from THE Martin Edwards, so keep an eye on this space!!

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is a great book, a family favourite, and if only the ending section could be longer. If you have not yet read ‘The Nine Tailors’ you should, as quickly as possible. It has a suspicious death, mistaken identity, fascinating characters with super backstories, and bell ringing. So much bell ringing, it is a classic for those who have even the slightest interest in the subject. As a picture of interwar life in the fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, it is a detailed account of flooding and the problems of maintaining usable roads and fields. The characters really work as people, in all their failings and strengths, and the search for justice on several levels occupies many minds.

Sayers most famous character, Lord Peter Wimsey, is travelling in a snowy winter with his faithful manservant, Bunter. A mechanical failure leaves them searching for shelter, which they find with the Rector of the church in Fenchurch St. Paul. Despite his wife trying to calm him, the reverend gentleman is concerned with the attempt to ring a peal, which could be derailed by the absence of one of the regular ringers. Wimsey knows ringing and the obsession it can be, so takes a rope and there is much detail about the ringing of the peal. Wimsey also becomes involved in the village community, the traditional ringing of a solo bell for a death, and the loss of Lady Thorpe, whose family has been suffering after the theft of some emeralds some years before this tale. The crime has left other victims as those involved with the missing gems still live in the local area.  When a body is discovered Wimsey and Butler commence investigations, which involve tracking one person to France. It is an involved story, but so well told with many accurate church descriptions that Sayers’ specialist knowledge is displayed.

My favourite part of this novel is the section that I wish could be longer, as a flood hits the three Fenchurch villages. Without spoiling the suspense, the rector and wife organise the sanctuary of many people and their livestock in the church and rectory. During the two weeks of isolation the community comes together and Wimsey discovers some facts which solve the mystery.

This novel shows Sayers writing at the height of her powers, with her favoured Wimsey central to discovering what has really happened, and becoming a trustee for a determined young woman. Each character, however, is really well drawn in this book, even if they are not central to the story, and I get the impression that Sayers really enjoyed writing it. Despite the absence of Harriet, it remains my favourite Sayers novels, and the cold and wet weather setting is a refreshing read for hot weather!

(Image via Amazon)

Some of you may remember that one of my Christmas presents (apart from Selwyn the Vicarage Cat) was the Folio set of Sayers Wimsey novels as illustrated above. I set myself the challenge of reading all five books by the end of June. I am going to fail! I still have Gaudy Night, and remembering that I had to give up reading a paperback copy because it was awesomely long in an unwieldy  form I know that I will not read even this lovely edition in a few days…Still, I have really enjoyed reading these books and will be tackling G.N. as soon as possible!

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens is a popular author for those who enjoy mid twentieth century British Women writers, especially as many of her books were autobiographical. It is no wonder then, that Mariana was the second book published by Persephone, and reprinted in their “Classics” series. The date of original publication, 1940, may suggest war time novels, but much of this book is pre war, the story of a girl growing up and meeting the challenge of what seems like an intensely felt life. The beginning and end of this novel are set in the early part of the war, with all the heightened emotions and appreciation of danger, but this is essentially the story of a girl, a young woman, finding life and love.

The first element of the novel may strike a chord with anyone who spent childhood holidays in the same place, with the same people. “Mary” is the main character of these reminiscences; we see her experiencing childhood adventures and the first stirrings of romance with a relative, Denys, enjoying the predictable pleasures of childhood. An only child, she lives with her mother and actor uncle in a small London apartment and finds school challenging. This is no misery memoir as her decision to go to drama school is described in all possible detail, a very funny account of her struggles to conform to the idiosyncratic demands of the course, and the glorious final performance which distinguishes her career as a would be actress.

Throughout her life her mother is a permanent if fascinating character, allowing much experimentation in the face of her own romantic confusion and business endeavours. When Mary goes to Paris and gets engaged in a set piece of scenery and charm, her mother is accepting as always, being secretly perceptive to what her daughter actually wants from life. Marriage is seen as important, not just to be drifted into, even if it brings the potential for pain.

This is a gentle book about how women had choices in the interwar period that their mothers lacked. It is a funny and entertaining book, with characters who could be real, living in circumstances not all of their choosing, but making the best of things in this time.  The style is friendly, with no great melodrama but understandable emotions. I can recommend it for those who are keen on “middlebrow” novels, and I am glad that Persephone have kept this particular Dickens book in print.

I recently enjoyed rereading this book; for me it has become a comfort read, a novel that has many touching incidents. Heaven knows that we could all do with such a thing at the moment. I found one or two other Monica Dickens books on a forage in Barter Books; I am inspired to find out where they have been (double) shelved…

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell and a few words on the new Lucy Worsley

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If the large number of Angela Thirkell novels now in paperback (not enough, Virago!) are a bit confusing, this early book may appeal. It is not the first in the series, but stands alone well (as most of the books do, really) and while it introduces and mentions characters that have a lot of involvement in the storylines of the other novels, you do not need to know all about them to follow the plot of this book.

It is a simple plot. Alice, shy artist daughter of Mrs Barton, author, is completely terrified of going to a house party at Pomfret towers. Her father and brother Guy are pretty mystified by this, but the inclusion of two family friends, Sally and Roddy, in the invitation gives her some courage. The house seems to be full of authors, established and would be, publishers, artists as well as sundry guests who fill Alice with varying levels of trepidation, but she survives as does everyone else. Some dreams are fulfilled, some suffer agonies of disappointment, others find a new life and partner as a result of a weekend in the country.

This could easily be the setting for a country house murder, but Thirkell is more interested in pushing her characters into less obviously difficult trials of life and love, including publishing,  romance and ambitions. It would be better described as a comedy of manners, as the reader waits to see if there is a satisfactory outcome to the various plot strands.

There are some great characters here, as the overbearing mother is contrasted with a no less caring but less ambitious parent, the modern artist with the sensible land agent, and minor aristocracy with those who actually do the work on the land. There is Sally, one of Thirkell’s practical young women, whose attitude to her pet dogs is memorable, as well as Phoebe, forerunner of a later Jessica, who decides that life on the stage is better than waiting for her mother’s matrimonial ambitions to work out. Guy, Roddy and Giles are young men who are not always sure what they want, but are definitely preferable to Julian, artist and difficult offspring.

This book represents Thirkell having fun, before the onset of war and shortage, race and class become so central. It is entertainment, well written and enjoyable, comfort reading for those seeking a safe read with satisfactory endings for nearly all concerned. I would recommend it for its characters and for those interested in a certain section of pre war society, a comedy without complexity.

In other news, Northernvicar and I went to see a production of Cyrano last night at Derby Theatre Royal. Dramatised by Northern Broadsides company, there was music, sword fighting and more rhyming than I expected. If you find it on tour, do go!

I have also been reading the new Lucy Worsley book, Jane Austen At Home. It is a very readable biography which is published today, and I have found the proof copy I received a while ago really interesting. There has been one report that suggests that it is very derivative of other books, but there has been so much written on quite a short life that the same observations are going to be made, the same facts quoted. I will get round to writing about it soon, but if you are a beginner Austen fan or an expert, I think that there will be something in this book for you, and it is an enjoyable read.