The Night of Fear – Moray Dalton
Moray Dalton is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Golden Age of Detective Fiction writers and this 1931 novel, reissued by the wonderful Dean Street Press, did not let my known. Perhaps my only complaint is that I devoured it too quickly. It is her take on a country house murder, but as you come to expect with Dalton, there is more than one twist along the way. Ostensibly Christmas-themed, it is little more than a plot device to have a lot of disparate folk in one place, playing a silly game, Hide and Seek in fancy dress, which goes disastrously wrong.
Although it is tagged as a Hugh Collier mystery, the second in the series featuring Dalton’s principle detective creation, he only has a relatively passing involvement in the case, only being on the scene as he was accompanying Sergeant Lane, a friend of his, who was summoned to investigate the death of Edgar Stallard, stabbed in the dark during a party game.
As he has no official role in the investigation, Collier has to withdraw, and Scotland Yard is represented by the rather arrogant Chief Inspector Purley. Lane bows out after he accepts the offer of hospitality at the house which proves detrimental to his health and the book marks the debut of Dalton’s private detective, Hermann Glide. So, there are four detectives involved in the investigations as the story unfolds.
The structure of the book is unusual. The story plunges straight into the murder without any time to understand who the characters are, their relationship to each other, and their possible motives, foibles, and jealousies. These we learn as the book progresses and the use of four detectives with differing styles, methods and perspectives allow the reader to get a better idea of what has gone on and keeps the interrogations fresh and interesting whereas they might otherwise have become a little wearisome. The pace and momentum of the story does begin to lag as we get to the court hearing, but the ending has enough twists and surprises to make up for it. Indeed, such is the pace of the book, a pause is almost welcome.
The obvious culprit is Hugh Darrow, who found Stallard’s body and whose Pierrot costume was drenched in blood. Darrow is blind though, or is he? He claims that the shock of discovering the body brought about a restoration of his eyesight. Even his staunchest supports, the American Mrs Clare, has some doubts as to his innocence. In all there are up to fourteen possible suspects, but Collier’s and Glide’s suspicions fall upon Sir Eustace Tunbridge’s extremely young fiancée, Diana Storey, and her grandmother whose sole ambition is to get her granddaughter as hitched to as rich a man as possible to escape the life of grinding poverty to which she seems to be doomed to.
I will not spoil the ending which is spectacular and presents Glide with a dilemma in weighing up whose life to save. Natural rather than juridical justice is served and, although this means that the ending is not as neat and tidy as some in this genre, it is thought provoking and asks the reader to consider how they would have behaved in Glide’s situation.
Glide is not an obvious hero, cutting an unimpressive figure, forever kneading a ball of wax with his fingers, and, as we learn, with something of a shady past. Dalton is not one to shy away from the demi-monde, as we have seen, and the attributes of Glide hold immense promise for those future occasions when we come across him. Dalton has elevated what could have been a stock country house murder mystery to another level, written with wit and stocked with excellent and intriguing characters.
A wonderful book which is well worth a read.