Perhaps it was because last month’s Book. Club selection, Joel Townsley Roger’s The Red Right Hand (1945) caused some rancor among our company for its unusual narrative style and noir atmosphere which delighted some and confounded others – at any rate, our February pick brings us back to more familiar territory. This month’s title was actually written two years after Roger’s thriller, but from start to finish it has the classic feel of a 1930’s Golden Age whodunnit. It also introduced me to a new author (for me), and while I may be a bit late climbing aboard the Moray Dalton Express, based on The Condamine Case, I think I will be traveling this way again.
Born in London in 1881, Katherine Dalton Renoir had already established herself as a novelist when she published her first mystery, The Kingsclere Mystery, in 1924. Her 1929 entry, One by One They Disappeared, introduced Scotland Yard Inspector Hugh Collier, who appears in fourteen of Dalton’s twenty-nine mysteries, but in this late entry (this was her 25thcrime novel), he takes his time showing up. As it’s my first Dalton, I’m not complaining, unlike those Poirot maniacs who gripe when he shows up near the end of Cat Among the Pigeons, because the opening of this novel is just delightful and once Collier appears, he exudes more than enough charm to satisfy.
At the start, Dalton creates a lovely juxtaposition between the classic and the modern. Most of the book is set in Baring St. Mary, a village so old that its thatched roofs are rotting and give off a mildewy smell. The squire’s estate, Little Baring, is in similar ruins, a stark difference between English village life post-World War I and life after the second war:
“The place was beautiful even in decay, but the row of empty stalls, the grass growing between the stones, shows that life was absent. ‘No riding or carriage horses, no poultry, no cows in the byre or pigs in the sty. Just a four-seater in the garage, some packet of dried eggs and rashers from the grocer’s. A pity.’”
Dalton creates a sense of how the past, both distant and recent, permeates the locale and its people with a melancholy air, but she enlivens the proceedings by making her point of focus two young men from a London film studio. Stephen Latimer has enjoyed some success as a director, and he is searching about for his next project. When he is invited by the lord of Little Baring to investigate an ancient family story of tragic romance mixed with a whiff of witchcraft, Stephen grabs his assistant director, Evan Hughes, recently recovered from an appendectomy, and the pair drive down to Baring St. Mary to visit George Condamine.
We quickly become acquainted with the village, its legends, and the small, dysfunctional family surrounding the charmingly childish lord of the estate: his gorgeous but tempestuous (and much younger wife) Ivy, distant cousin Lucy Arden, smart and plain, who serves as a sort of factotum to the household, George’s alarming sister-in-law and her odious son, who used to live in the mansion before George got married and now reside – and fume – in a small cottage in the village. Other villagers pop up with information, most notably the local rector, and Dalton has a fine way with character sketches and dialogue.
If the village provides the atmosphere, it’s the machinations of Stephen and Evan as their film starts to take shape that propel the book forward. I enjoyed following these two at work, picking aspects of the local history that appeal to them and envisioning what would work best on screen. The history they uncover is appealing and dark, a tale of a lovers’ triangle that combines the Gothic elements of a Bronte novel with the images of the best Universal Pictures thrillers. Yet, even as the directing team chugs along, the author drops disquieting hints that their plans may not progress smoothly for long.
Sure enough, death grinds the film to a halt, with the first surprise for me was the identity of the victim, as things seemed to be moving in a different direction. At any rate, with nothing to occupy his time, Evan Hughes starts to become more personally involved in the sad affairs of the Condamine family, especially when the inquest reveals that this death was murder. Hughes is an appealing character, in the manner of all those Ken Blake types one finds in a Carr novel, but smarter and more sensitive. There’s a nice moment at the victim’s funeral where Evan is embarrassed by the way the flowers sent by the film studio outshine the modest offerings of the villagers.
Enter Inspector Collier at this point, whom Dalton establishes as someone we can not only trust but enjoy spending time with:
“He was a man of about fifty, with a slim, active-looking figure, hands tanned by the sun but noticeably well kept, a lean brown face with shrewd grey eyes and a humorous mouth. He had a quiet unhurried manner and a friendly smile.”
Collier and his assistant, Sergeant Duffield, have an easy rapport and a charming banter between them as they begin their investigations, trying to discover if the murder can be laid to someone close to home or if a member of the visiting film crew might be involved. A second, more violent murder occurs, and the police team uncovers a few dark secrets before the culprit is revealed.
And here is where I must say . . . well, I enjoyed reading this so much that I couldn’t help but ask myself as I was going along: what gives with Moray Dalton? Her writing is delightful, and the situation she sets up is good. Granted this is only my first read, but why would a woman who wrote nearly thirty mysteries be all but forgotten? Curtis Evans, who wrote introductions to this and all the recent reissues by Dean Street Press, suggests that Dalton did not promote her writing with the fervor of a Christie because she did not need the money or the prestige.
I’ll accept that, but I’ll be interested in reading more to test a theory of mine. The ending to The Condamine Case is perfectly serviceable. It lacks the precision clueing and sense of fair play of a 1930’s solution, as crime novels of the 40’s and 50’s sometimes did, but certainly explains the situation and provides satisfying emotional resonance, like a creditable Silver Age novel must. But there’s nothing particularly stunning about the path to this solution, the requisite reversals, or the final reveal. I guess I like a good twist. And while I know that isn’t a prerequisite for a good mystery novelist, it might help a prospective Crime Queen to stand out. Still, it’s early days for Moray Dalton and me. I liked the characters and the writing style, the whole film plot worked for me from start to finish, and I’m already looking forward to a chance to spend more time with Inspector Collier and Sergeant Duffield. Looks like it’s time to return to The Strange Case of Harriet Hall . . .