Tag Archives: Moray Dalton

The Condamine Case

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!

The Art School Murders

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.

The Night Of Fear

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.

The Belgrave Manor Crime

The Belgrave Manor Crime – Moray Dalton

Moray Dalton, the nom de plume of Katherine Dalton Renoir, is fast becoming one of my favourite crime fiction authors and she did not let me down with this fifth Hugh Collier mystery, a story with a twist. It was first published in 1935 and has now been reissued by the wonderful Dean Street Press. Dalton is not afraid to mine the darker side of life for her stories which, for me, makes her an interesting writer but probably did not do her chances of enduring popularity much good. There is a certain edge to her books which most books of this genre lack, content to provide a cosy read in front of the fire on a winter’s evening.

We are introduced to Cosmo Thor, a psychic investigator, as you can tell from his ludicrous name, a friend of Collier’s, who operates in that demi-monde between the areas that are the domain of the police and that of the alienist, we are told. Although this is his first appearance in a novel Thor did appear in a short story published in 1927. On a train journey back to London, Thor bumps into an acquaintance, a Madame Luna, who has just been released from prison, incarcerated for three weeks at His Majesty’s pleasure for practising palmistry. She is going to collect her daughter, Allie, from landlady.

Thor goes away for a long weekend but on his return is told by his landlady that Madame Luna had turned up on the Friday desperate to see him but had been turned away. Anxious, Thor consults with the earthly powers that are represented by Collier of the Yard who tells him that a woman matching Luna’s description had been found dead from a fall off a cliff in Devon. If it was she, what was she doing in Devon?

Thor’s investigations take him down to Sussex where he learns from father and son estate agents, John and Dennis Garland, that Belgrave Manor, long left empty and with a sinister reputation with the locals, has been recently leased by a Mrs Maulfrey for a year. He also learns that a child is being looked after by an attractive nurse, Celia Kent, with whom Dennis is infatuated. Before he can proceed too far with his enquiries, Thor is involved in a suspicious car crash and is seriously injured.

Eventually, Collier takes up the reins and he methodically gets to the bottom of what is going on at Belgrave Manor. His methods are methodical, but he soon realises that the case has much darker undertones, involving sacrificial victims. It is not difficult to work out who the young sacrificial lamb will be, but in unravelling the case Collier puts himself and Celia in mortal danger. The revelation of the master of ceremonies took me by surprise and fair play to Dalton for that.       

Dalton has an easy style and keeps the plot moving at a pace that engages the reader’s attention. Thor, though, seems to be a bit of a convenience to get the story started. The police would not have been interested in Luna’s initial plight or have the knowledge of her background. The character of Thor is convenient for getting that bit of the book out of the way, but when the book settles down into a more conventional murder mystery/thriller, he is side lined. The reader, confronted with a psychic investigator and a clairvoyant, is left in no doubt that what they have picked up is not the cosy country house murder story the title might suggest, but something darker and more enthralling too.

It is not this unorthodox writer’s best, but it is enjoyable, nonetheless.

The Case Of Alan Copeland

The Case of Alan Copeland – Moray Dalton

I number Moray Dalton as one of my detective fiction finds, a now sadly neglected writer, whose fortunes the excellent Dean Street Press are trying to revive by reissuing her works. Quite why writers fall so dramatically out of fashion has puzzled greater minds than mine. In Dalton’s case, was it her failure to crack the lucrative American market or her subject matter? She has a penchant for diving into the murkier side of life. I have read stories involving drug taking and transvestism and this, her seventeenth, published in 1937, deals with sex out of wedlock and illegitimacy. Not subjects you would want your wife or servants to read about.

The book falls into two parts, the set up and then the court case. Alan Copeland has moved into the quiet English village of Teene, where he is trapped into marriage with an older, richer woman, who resents and frustrates his attempts to earn his own living as a poultry farmer. He falls hopelessly in love with the vicar’s niece, Lydia, who has come to Teene for a few days and she falls pregnant, unbeknown to Alan. She returns to London, the pair correspond and then Alan’s wife dies suddenly. Now freed of the encumbrance that was his wife, Alan goes to London, discovers Lydia’s condition, marries her and they go off travelling.

After a few months, somewhat surprisingly, the couple decide to settle back in Teene. This is when the trouble starts. Anonymous letters are sent to the police, claiming that Alan’s former wife had been poisoned. The body is exhumed and found to be full of arsenic. Alan is arrested and the second half of the book deals with his trial. The evidence against him looks to be conclusive but slowly and surely his defence team unearth some evidence that may just prove his innocence.

It all makes for a gripping and entertaining read. What, I think, helps make a good Dalton book is her characterisation. Most of the villagers we meet have an underlying nasty streak and are willing to stick the knife in and let their feelings be known. There are seething jealousies and a propensity for gossip and malice. The famous English sangfroid you associate with country folk is nowhere to be seen in Teene. Even Lydia’s uncle, the vicar, seems more interested in his books than the fate of his niece. The resolution of the case has some twists and turns along the way as not everything is as it seems. Only quick work avoids a second tragedy at the end of the tale.                

Moray Dalton is an author well worth exploring, if you like your crime novels well-written and well-paced. I know I certainly do.