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.