Tag Archives: Inspector Collier

The Belfry Murder

The Belfry Murder – Moray Dalton

Moray Dalton, the nom de plume of Katherine Dalton Renoir, is one of those Golden Age detective fiction authors who has sadly and unwarrantedly fallen out of favour. All is not lost, though, and thanks to the efforts of the wonderful people at Dean Street Press, her works are being reintroduced to a modern audience. The Belfry Murder, the third book in her Inspector Hugh Collier series, was originally published in 1933.

This is a well-paced, entertaining, and enthralling story with many of the elements you expect from the genre. We have two gangs, one a shady group of Russians and the other a group of gullible hooray-Henrys under the control of a criminal mastermind who have diverted from their usual pursuit of peddling drugs to chasing the big one. Their target are some jewels, including the famed Eye of Nero, belonging to Countess Nadine, which were smuggled from Russia during the Bolshevik revolution by an English governess, Mary Borlase. They have remained hidden, or so it is thought, in a run-down antique shop in the backstreets of London. Suddenly, after fourteen years, their whereabouts have come to light and the two ruthless gangs are in a race to secure them, irrespective of what gets in their way.

Along the way, there is a brutal murder and the kidnapping of a young girl. As the book progresses, though, the recovery of the jewels rather subsides into the background, the Russians, the assumption being, are smarter and more efficient than their British counterparts. Instead, the focus of the book turns to the death of one of the young Hoorays, who seemingly had hung himself in the belfry, the bell tolling ominously as he went into his death throes. Ostensibly it is a clear case of suicide, but Collier is not convinced. His investigations unearth a tangled web of intrigue and deceit, which draw many of the strands of a disparate plot together.

I will not spoil your enjoyment of this excellent tale by saying too much more, rather to highlight an interesting aspect of Dalton’s style and world perspective. One of the problems with reading books, particularly those written in the 1930s, is that often the reader is confronted with attitudes and portrayals of nations, races and classes which rather jar on modern sensibilities. The reader, of course, has the choice of throwing the book down in disgust, if offended, or to take the view that, regrettable as un-PC views are, that was par for the course then. I fall into the latter category, which means that I do not condone antisemitic or racist attitudes, rather I mark the book down and, probably, would steer away from that author in future.

Two of Dalton’s principal characters, father and son Israel and Maurice Kafka, are Jewish and my heart sank as I thought 1930s, antisemitism. What was surprising and pleasing is that Dalton portrayed them with sympathy and sensitivity. In some ways they were stereotypical, and often repeated racist slurs and jibes about themselves, but as the narrative unfolded, they were among the more appealing and endearing characters in what, admittedly, was a fairly bad bunch. Even if the book had not been top notch, Dalton would have gone up in my estimation just for that.

A lovely book and well worth a read.

Book Corner – October 2019 (1)

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.