A review of The Condamine Case by Moray Dalton
This is a case of Gothic meets murder mystery meets the film industry. Into this heady mix wanders Dalton’s go-to police detective, Inspector Hugh Collier, in this his twelfth outing in a fifteen book series, originally published in 1947 and reissued by Dean Street Press. It is a scenario that plays to Dalton’s undoubted strengths as a writer.
The book is a bit of a slow burner and that is because Dalton invests her time in setting the scene and painting her characters. The set up is a little complex and involves the Condamine family who have lived for centuries in the Somerset village of Little Baring. Around three hundred years ago the then Mrs Condamine denounced two women of the village, one of whom, Vashti, just happened to have been Hugh Condamine’s bit on the side, as witches and they were ducked and drowned. However, Vashti gets her revenge as Mrs Condamine is driven mad and ultimately to her death as she is stalked by her victim’s ghost.
The present Mrs Condamine, Ida, told the story of the family curse to an up-and-coming film director, Stephen Latimer, and seeing the cinematographic possibilities of the story, goes down to Little Baring with his sidekick, Evan Hughes, to see for himself, to obtain cash-strapped George Condamine’s agreement to use their land and buildings for the shoot, and then to commence filming.
There are then two murders. Firstly, George Condamine is poisoned, probably as a result of eating some sandwiches prepared by his cousin for a picnic. Then Ida is killed, hit on the back of the head with a rock near the Witches’ House. Are the murders linked and who committed them? Midway through the book, the diligent Inspector Collier is called in to solve the mysteries.
In truth there are precious few plausible suspects and whilst Dalton does her best to crank up the tension as the book moves towards its conclusion, for those who like to play armchair detective she does withhold some vital clues that would have made the identification of the culprit easier than it was. Oddly, her interest in George’s death also wanes well before the end, making a less complete solution.
It is easy to see why the death of George falls off the radar screen. Ida offers much more dramatic and thematic possibilities. She is someone who sees herself as Vashti, indeed she was badgering Latimer to give her the role in the film, but at the time that Vashti was meeting her end she was reliving the fate of her ancestor. Dalton is thus able to cleverly interweave the ancient family curse with the modern tragedy that befalls the family.
It does pose the question whether the death of George was necessary, serving little more than a distraction to the artistic integrity of the book’s structure and allowing a few hares to run to muddy Collier’s investigations, and whether its inclusion weakens the book as a whole.
On the plus side, Dalton’s writing is as vivid and engaging as ever. She has the happy knack of being able to create vivid and believable characters who rise above the genre’s stereotypes and with whom the reader can connect even if they have been absent for a few chapters. Dalton also has a strong sense of place and history and her descriptions of the Gothic features of the buildings and church of Little Baring are marvellous.
This does not reach the heights of some of her books, but Dalton never disappoints, delivering an entertaining read. My only regret is that I have all her books that have been reissued. If only more could be reissued, what a wonderful 2022 that would promise to be!