One by one they disappeared – Moray Dalton
Moray Dalton was the pen name of Katherine Dalton Renoir, the English born daughter of Anglo-Canadian parents. She wrote twenty-nine crime novels, fifteen of which, including this, featuring her principal detective, Inspector Collier of the Yard. It is fair to say that, although relatively successful in her time, Dalton has fallen out of favour. In an attempt to resuscitate her reputation, the enterprising Dean Street Press earlier this year reissued five of her works, of which this, published in 1929, is the earliest.
In truth, it has not aged well and is rather dated but if you are willing to look beyond that, you will find an engaging tale, stylishly written with a healthy dash of humour and the obligatory pinch of love interest. Her characters are well drawn and believable and Collier, whilst a pro to his finger bones, is likeable and has a heart. The plot is sufficiently interesting to keep the reader engaged and compared with other novels from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction, this book tries not to bedazzle the reader with the brilliance of the detective in unravelling the mystery from a motley collection of clues. That said, I had worked out who had done it midway through the book, even though Collier steadfastly chose to follow the wrong route.
In essence, it is a tale of what happens when a kindly man is taken to the cleaners by those with baser instincts. A rich and rather pampered American from New York, Elbert J Packenham, together with his black cat, Jehosaphat, who plays a prominent part in the story’s denouement, is one of nine survivors of the sinking of a liner, the Coptic. Packenham, in a bad way, is put into a lifeboat and cared for by the other eight survivors. As a mark of his eternal gratitude for his escape, Packenham hosts annually a dinner for all those who survived the Coptic.
But he does more. He marks the occasion of the annual dinner by buying an expensive gift for each of the attendees. Packenham, having no one to leave his fortune to as his nephew has recently died, announces that he has left his fortune to the eight survivors. The will, though, is effectively a tontine (https://wp.me/p2EWYd-2Pf) in that only those who are alive upon Packenham’s death will get a share of the money. The problem with tontines is that they give ample opportunity for those of a greedy disposition to eliminate those who would otherwise profit from the arrangement and, thus, increase their share of the money.
And one by one, in seemingly random accidents, the beneficiaries of the tontine will die. Collier suspects darker forces at work. When Packenham himself disappears and the culprits set a trap for the inspector which leads to a colleague being seriously injured, he knows he is on to something. Deploying his expertise and Jehosaphat playing the role of deus ex machina, he gets to the bottom of the dastardly scheme.
As often is the way with these stories, you have to suspend belief. If you can do that you will meet some wonderful characters including an Italian nobleman, Count Olivieri, down on his luck and a bohemian English artist, Edgar Mallory. A great read.