Books · Review

Bats in The Belfry

A Cosy Crime sleeper worthy of resurrection

I’m a huge fan of Cosy Crime, I cut my grown-up reading teeth on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, so it should be no surprise that I’m a big fan of the British Library’s inspired decision to republish lost Golden Age novels.

Fifty-one re-issues in and I’m still stunned at the number of authors who had stellar careers as crime writers, were fully inducted members of the Detection Club, and had publication lists to rival Christie’s but who, within a few years of their deaths, had just vanished from the pantheon classic crime novelists.

Bats In The BelfrySuch a writer was E.C.R.Lorac, author of Bats In The Belfry. In his introduction Martin Edwards describes  the pseudonymous Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett)  as enjoying a “low-key career spanning more than a quarter of a century.” It also produced a catalogue of over seventy novels, yet, cosy crime fan that I am I had  never heard of her until her book turned up on my work intranet.

Bats, British Library’s inaugural Crime Classic for 2018, is also the first of Lorac’s novels to be given the British Library treatment.  It couldn’t have happened to a better book! One of the dangers of republishing books that have disappeared in the mists of time, at least if you are republishing them for the mass market, is that some of them will prove to have  been ‘lost’ with good cause. Not that the writing need be poor or the plotting weak, but there are social aspects that can be critical to the development or fundamental premise of the story that change over the course of  half a century. When that happens there is a danger that the reader will at best be disgruntled with a puzzle they were unlikely to be able to solve because they didn’t understand the clues they were being given,  or, at worst, that the whole premise will seem beyond ludicrous to modern readers. Of the twenty or so BLCC’s I have read only one has fallen into the latter category, and whilst there have been one or two which were a bit plodding thanks to such issues they have largely been a pleasure to read, and I have been able to joyfully pit my wits against the authors’ intrinsic challenge to solve the mystery before the denouement.

Bats in the Belfry most definitely falls into this class of Crime Classic, so much so that it’s a surprise to find from Edwards that it was a bit of a non-starter when it was first  published in 1937.

A failing writer, his actress wife, his ward and a selection of friends are collected one evening following the funeral of the writer’s cousin. Shortly thereafter the writer himself has vanished, his suitcase and passport left in a darkly sinister studio known variously as The Belfry, and The Morgue.  The story is as dark and twisty as any you could hope for from a member of the Detection Club, and it plays nicely on themes of the time. Broken marriages, financially emasculated men, and the requisite ‘strange foreign man’ all appear, and even aarchaeology gets a look in.  As the main characters sit and incautiously discuss ways to bump off someone and hide the body there is brief verbal tussle over the usefulness – and even existence of – dene holes, ancient subterranean storage areas that provided writers of the time with endless possibilities, most notably in Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.  Lorac’s plotting is flawless and deceptively simplistic, and she leads you back and forth from suspect to suspect. She is brutally unsympathetic to her characters, and her writing bundles you along until you finally reach the conclusion, to discover how good you are at detecting. Or not.

 

 

Books · Review

Force of Nature

Jane  Harper builds on the promise of her debut novel 

Harper’s debut novel ,’The Dry‘,  was one of my personal books of the year last year, and in fact I still sell it quite regularly to customers seeking recommendations. I was absolutely delighted ,then, to receive a proof copy of her new novel,Force of Nature‘, from LittleBrown.

The plot is fairly straightforward , five female colleagues take part in a team-building weekend in the forests north of Melbourne. Three days later and several hours behind schedule four of them finally struggle back to the base camp, dehydrated, panicked and battered. The fifth one – Alice Russell, unpopular with the others – walked out of the camp one night and hasn’t been seen since.

force of nature cover
Force of Nature by Jane Harper will be published in hardback on 08/02/2018 by LittleBrown

Is her disappearance linked to the serial killer who had made the area his hunting ground twenty years earlier, or is it the result of the bullying,  anger and resentment that permeates the group? Or is it less than a coincidence that the woman who is missing is an informant for Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, the officer investigating her employers for money laundering?

In ‘The DryHarper used binary narratives – one historical, one contemporary – to artfully unravel a single story. She repeats this formula in ‘Force of Nature’ with equal success,  the only difference being that in this instance the ‘historical’ events preceded the contemporary events by a few days, rather than decades.

One of the outstanding qualities of Harper’s writing is her character development. She delivers convincing and well-realised personalities who manage to be separate and distinct from each other without falling into charicature-like stereotypes. The  new book makes the most of this particular skill, building one of the narrative lines from the alternating perspectives of the remaining four women of the group, and using it to steer the story in different ways unique to each character.

This is a beautiful example of Harper’s defining quality as a writer: the ability to  carry a simple, uncomplicated storyline with masterful writing and composition. The way she utilises the voices of her characters: the careful, almost throw-away manner she drops in suggestions that could as easily be red-herrings as critical plot devices. With perfect pacing that builds exponentially to a dramatic,  whirling climax Harper unravels a gripping tale.

Two books in an she has already made it onto my ‘favourite authors’ list. I shall be reserving space on my bookshelves for all her future books.