the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous.
She moves into a house for the summer, but things take a sinister turn when strange sounds are heard at night. Someone is systematically searching the house. Soon Miss Rachel and her long-time servant Liddy are wrapped up in a treasure-hunt-cum-murder-mystery involving the collapse of the local bank.
The joy in the book is in Miss Rachel’s acerbic narrative style
The birds—don’t ask me what kind; they all look alike to me, unless they have a hall mark of some bright color—the birds were chirping in the hedges, and everything breathed of peace. Liddy, who was born and bred on a brick pavement, got a little bit down-spirited when the crickets began to chirp, or scrape their legs together, or whatever it is they do, at twilight.
Great stuff, but the book seemed to get nowhere fast and I skipped the final third, hence no review at the time. Anyway, why is this relevant to Avery Hopwood’s The Bat?
The set-up is almost exactly the same…
- Plucky elderly spinster moves into a rented home for the summer.
- Accompanied by old servant with whom she has an affectionately bitchy relationship.
- Other servants immediately leave the house for a variety of spurious reasons.
- Bank in the local town collapses. Obvious suspect has vanished.
- Elderly spinster’s young female relative has romantic attachment to obvious suspect.
- Strange sounds are heard at night; somebody is searching the house.
The difference is the introduction of a masked super-villain (here seen lurking at a window in the 1926 silent film based on the play):
The Bat—they called him the Bat. Like a bat he chose the night hours for his work of rapine; like a bat he struck and vanished, pouncingly, noiselessly; like a bat he never showed himself to the face of the day. He’d never been in stir, the bulls had never mugged him, he didn’t run with a mob, he played a lone hand, and fenced his stuff so that even the fence couldn’t swear he knew his face. Most lone wolves had a moll at any rate—women were their ruin—but if the Bat had a moll, not even the grapevine telegraph could locate her.
So I did a small amount of digging and discovered that The Bat is a book-of-the-play, or possibly a book-of-the-movie. Avery Hopwood was a dramatist known as the Playboy Playwright, who in 1920 collaborated with Rinehart to write what was initially a popular play but was also filmed in 1926, 1930 and 1959 (incidentally giving Bob Kane the idea for Batman).
You can tell it was a play. Towards the end I noticed that all the action was rather obviously taking place in one room – beneficial in a play but surely needless in a book, and producing quite clumsy effects (reminding me of The Mousetrap).
Anderson pondered an instant. Then—
“I’d like to have a few minutes with the Doctor alone,” he said somberly.
The group about him dissolved at once. Miss Cornelia, her arm around her niece’s waist, led the latter gently to the door. As the two lovers passed each other a glance flashed between them—a glance, pathetically brief, of longing and love. Dale’s finger tips brushed Bailey’s hand gently in passing.
“Beresford,” commanded the detective, “take Bailey to the library and see that he stays there.”
Beresford tapped his pocket with a significant gesture and motioned Bailey to the door. Then they, too, left the room. The door closed. The Doctor and the detective were alone.
So is The Bat better or worse than The Circular Staircase? I finished this one, so probably. It certainly benefits from being shorter, and retains the humour and the lively friendship between the protagonist and her maid.
“I’ve stood by you through thick and thin,” she mourned in a low voice. “I stood by you when you were a vegetarian—I stood by you when you were a theosophist—and I seen you through socialism, Fletcherism and rheumatism—but when it comes to carrying on with ghosts—”
Overall: I enjoyed it, but there are definitely better things to read out there.
Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart
First published George H. Doran Company, 1926
This edition Project Gutenberg
Confessions of a Mystery Novelist: The mystery itself is complex and follows several story threads. I can say without spoiling the novel that besides murder and theft, it involves blackmail, issues of identity, secret relationships, and threatened young love, among other things. And just about everyone keeps at least something back.
The Passing Tramp: The real Crime Queen in the decade of the 1930s, in terms of money and sales anyway, was not, I suspect, Agatha Christie (brilliant as she was), but the American writer Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958). At this time her books, which included mainstream novels as well as mysteries, regularly sold over 100,000 copies per title in the United States (this in a period when people mostly rented mysteries for a few cents a day from libraries).