The strange case of Harriet Hall – Moray Dalton
Dalton, the nom de plume of Katherine Dalton Renoir, published 29 crime novels between 1924 and 1951 but languishes in ill-merited obscurity. This book first saw the light of day in 1936 and is one of five of her books that Dean Street Press have reissued in an attempt to revive her popularity. As in the other book of hers that I have read, One by one they Disappeared, it features Inspector Hugh Collier from the Yard, brought in to take over the direction of the investigations from the bumbling local constabulary.
Amy Steer, the slightly naïve heroine, down on her luck, is astonished to be contacted out of the blue by an aunt she never knew of, let alone met, Harriet Hall. She is astonished by her aunt’s appearance when they meet in a waiting room in Victoria station, first-class, of course; “Mrs Hall wore large drop earrings that swung backwards and forwards as she moved. Two females in the corner eyed her disapprovingly. Amy was trying not to think that her aunt seemed a rather vulgar person”. To Amy’s astonishment, her wants her to live with her in a cottage and gives her £100 to buy clothes, as she wants her to make a good impression on the local society. She is told to travel down on Monday and that she will be met at the station.
On the way down Amy meets a pleasant young chap, Tony Dene, who drops her like a hot brick when he learns that she is related to Harriet Hall. No one is at the station to collect her and when she gets to the cottage, she finds that it is deserted. She spends a lonely and fraught night in the cottage, before deciding to visit the Denes, her aunt’s friends, at the Dower House.
The Dene’s reaction to the news of Harriet’s disappearance is strange, the mother, Mrs Dene, appearing nervous and somehow in her power. Tony and Molly make no pretence of their dislike of Harriet and the elder sister, Lavinia, a self-centred beauty, is only concerned about her forthcoming marriage to the son of the Lord and Lady of the Manor. Tony returns to the cottage with Amy and his dog leads him to a covered well, where upon lifting the lid, he sees Harriet’s body. Who killed her and why?
There are a number of possible suspects, all of whom motives and little by way of a convincing alibi. The scandal of the dead body and the cloud of suspicion over the Denes kaiboshes Lavinia’s marriage prospects. Collier is brought in to investigate, a patient, compassionate, thorough detective who works his way slowly and carefully towards revealing what really went on at the cottage. Along the way there is a real twist when he discovers that Harriet is not really who and what she seemed to be, an interesting and somewhat modern twist to the story.
The characterisations are believable, the plot rattles along without any real gaps or unbelievable jumps in logic and final chapter is a thrilling and worthy ending to an excellent book. The mystery elements are novel and memorable, making it a story well worth spending an evening or two over.