A review of The Art School Murders by Moray Dalton
Published originally in 1943 and now rescued from obscurity and reissued by Dean Street Press, The Art School Murders features Inspector Hugh Collier, the detective fiction creation of Moray Dalton, the nom de plume of Katherine Dalton Renoir. Curiously, if you look at her biographical details it is generally not included in her Collier series but is shown as a standalone mystery, the polar opposite of Patricia Wentworth whose works just need a passing reference to one of her stock characters for them to be included in a series. Strange.
It is wartime and Britain is subject to the blackout, an attempt to reduce the targets visible from the air. Whether it was very effective as a defensive technique other than giving the citizens the psychological fillip of thinking they were doing something for the war effort is debatable, but for the criminally minded and the crime writer the prohibition of light during night time was manna from heaven. It made it easier for them to go about their nefarious business and more easily evade detection.
What has particularly attracted to Dalton as a writer is that she is good at creating an atmosphere that the reader can believe in and immerse themselves into. She is also interested in her characters. Their reactions, demise and the impact on those around them are not just plotting devices designed to keep the story moving on to its inevitable conclusion. She takes time to explore the psychology of the crime and the reactions of those closely affected by them, producing more rounded and believable characters and a detective story that is more than just that. It staggers me that she is so underappreciated.
That is not to say that her works are flawless. It is hard to make the claim that she plays fair with her readers in this story, making it difficult for the armchair sleuth to crack the case. It is conceivable that the contemporary readership was more au fait with a set of obscure verses from the Old Testament that hold the key to the mystery than I was, but even so the solution required a knowledge of the backstory of one of the characters that was not evident from my reading of the novel. It did not spoil my enjoyment of the book; it just seemed strange given then time spent on exploring the whale-sized red herrings that Dalton teases us with.
There are two morals that can be drawn from this book; careless talk costs lives and if you are in a hole, stop digging. Althea Greville, an artist’s model, is found dead at Signor Morosini’s art school. The local police call in Scotland Yard and Inspector Hugh Collier is assigned to the case. Tragedy strikes a second time when a first-year student, Betty Hayden, who had gone back to the studio at around the time of Althea’s murder and boasted that she had seen something, is murdered while watching her favourite, Fred Astaire, at the local cinema. A third person, to whom Betty may have disclosed some information, is thrown down the stairs and her best friend, Cherry, is lured back to the studio and attacked.
This fourth attack leads to the culprit being captured red-handed but who is it? In an initially perplexing case, Collier has upwards of fifty suspects to consider but his diligent procedural work whittles the list down to a more manageable size. Did Althea’s flirty character hold the key to her murder? Did she have a secret that linked her with her murderer? Was it Signor Morosini or the teacher, John Kent, who rehired Althea and for whom Cherry has a crush? Or perhaps the rather careless caretaking couple?
Despite working in the dark for some time, Collier begins to see the light when he visits the local graveyard and looks at a memorial that seems out of place in terms of style and size and a piece of graffiti on it.
Dalton produces a gripping, entertaining novel that sucks the reader in and will not let go. I was only too happy to enjoy the ride. A sadly underrated writer.