The Bat – Mary Roberts Rinehart

A master criminal is on the loose in New York. He’s called the Bat & he has police baffled. He murders & steals & often leaves behind his calling card – a bat nailed to a door or a black paper bat in an empty safe. There are many theories as to the Bat’s identity. The police are looking at the criminal underworld but a prominent newspaper editor thinks it could be a professional man – a doctor or lawyer. Ambitious police detective Anderson convinces his reluctant chief to let him take on the case as a reward for his last big success.

Wealthy Cornelia Van Gorder decides to spend her summer holiday in the country & rents a house that formerly belonged to banker Courtleigh Fleming. Fleming has recently died & his bank has just been defrauded of a large sum of money. Cashier Jack Bailey is suspected of the crime & he’s disappeared which only increases suspicion. Bailey is engaged to Miss Van Gorder’s niece, Dale Ogden, although the lovers have kept their relationship secret so far. Cornelia’s holiday has been interrupted by anonymous letters warning her to leave the house & her hysterical maid, Lizzie, is jumping at every noise & claims to have seen strange men trying to enter the house. Cornelia is a member of one of old New York’s grandest society families. She’s finding old age very boring & decides that if the Bat has decided to target her in this remote house, she’ll be ready for him.

Dale convinces Jack Bailey to hide out at the country house masquerading as a gardener. She has a theory that Courtleigh Fleming himself stole his bank’s money & hid it somewhere in the house before he died. There’s a rumour that Fleming’s house has a hidden room & if Dale can find the original blueprints, she is sure that the money will be found & Jack exonerated. If the money is in the house, that’s surely what the Bat is after – if the strange noises & intruders are signs of the Bat at all & not just figments of Lizzie’s imagination. Cornelia calls the police for help & Anderson is sent out to investigate. Events come to a head on a stormy night when the lights go out & no one – not Anderson, Courtleigh’s nephew, Richard, who rented the house to Cornelia, Doctor Wells who is behaving very suspiciously & the Unknown – a man who turns up at the door in the middle of the night battered & bruised & seemingly with no memory of what’s happened to him – can be trusted.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was one of the most successful mystery writers of the early 20th century. She was often called the American Agatha Christie (even though her first book was published some years before Christie began writing) but I don’t think she can match the great Agatha in her plotting. She was also famous as the leading light of the Had I But Known school of mystery fiction where the heroine, instead of calling for help when she sees something suspicious, dives in & follows the suspected murderer or thief & gets into some very sticky situations. The only distasteful aspect of the story is the relentlessly racist stereotyping of the Japanese butler, Billy, who is never trusted & is never called Billy when he can be called The Jap. However, The Bat was written in 1920 & those of us who read books of this era are used to the casual racism of the times. The character of the Bat was apparently one of the inspirations for the later creation of comic book hero Batman, although, of course, Batman is a hero rather than a villain. There is a scene where the shadow of a bat in a circle of light is thrown onto the curtains of a room & this did remind me of the bat symbol that would light up the skies of Gotham City in the 1960s TV series.

The Bat is a fast-paced mystery with suspects galore & Rinehart uses the atmosphere of paranoia & suspicion very well.

I read The Bat courtesy of NetGalley.

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