The Belgrave Manor Crime – Moray Dalton
Moray Dalton, the nom de plume of Katherine Dalton Renoir, is fast becoming one of my favourite crime fiction authors and she did not let me down with this fifth Hugh Collier mystery, a story with a twist. It was first published in 1935 and has now been reissued by the wonderful Dean Street Press. Dalton is not afraid to mine the darker side of life for her stories which, for me, makes her an interesting writer but probably did not do her chances of enduring popularity much good. There is a certain edge to her books which most books of this genre lack, content to provide a cosy read in front of the fire on a winter’s evening.
We are introduced to Cosmo Thor, a psychic investigator, as you can tell from his ludicrous name, a friend of Collier’s, who operates in that demi-monde between the areas that are the domain of the police and that of the alienist, we are told. Although this is his first appearance in a novel Thor did appear in a short story published in 1927. On a train journey back to London, Thor bumps into an acquaintance, a Madame Luna, who has just been released from prison, incarcerated for three weeks at His Majesty’s pleasure for practising palmistry. She is going to collect her daughter, Allie, from landlady.
Thor goes away for a long weekend but on his return is told by his landlady that Madame Luna had turned up on the Friday desperate to see him but had been turned away. Anxious, Thor consults with the earthly powers that are represented by Collier of the Yard who tells him that a woman matching Luna’s description had been found dead from a fall off a cliff in Devon. If it was she, what was she doing in Devon?
Thor’s investigations take him down to Sussex where he learns from father and son estate agents, John and Dennis Garland, that Belgrave Manor, long left empty and with a sinister reputation with the locals, has been recently leased by a Mrs Maulfrey for a year. He also learns that a child is being looked after by an attractive nurse, Celia Kent, with whom Dennis is infatuated. Before he can proceed too far with his enquiries, Thor is involved in a suspicious car crash and is seriously injured.
Eventually, Collier takes up the reins and he methodically gets to the bottom of what is going on at Belgrave Manor. His methods are methodical, but he soon realises that the case has much darker undertones, involving sacrificial victims. It is not difficult to work out who the young sacrificial lamb will be, but in unravelling the case Collier puts himself and Celia in mortal danger. The revelation of the master of ceremonies took me by surprise and fair play to Dalton for that.
Dalton has an easy style and keeps the plot moving at a pace that engages the reader’s attention. Thor, though, seems to be a bit of a convenience to get the story started. The police would not have been interested in Luna’s initial plight or have the knowledge of her background. The character of Thor is convenient for getting that bit of the book out of the way, but when the book settles down into a more conventional murder mystery/thriller, he is side lined. The reader, confronted with a psychic investigator and a clairvoyant, is left in no doubt that what they have picked up is not the cosy country house murder story the title might suggest, but something darker and more enthralling too.
It is not this unorthodox writer’s best, but it is enjoyable, nonetheless.