Transvestism and the occult in 1930s Sussex. Or, the crime novels of Moray Dalton.

Last time out I was writing about the British Library Crime Classics reissue series and about the South Downs of Sussex. Well, to continue the connections, these past few weeks I have been reading more 1930s crime novels set mostly in the same parts of the English landscape in the shape of a run of Dean Street Press reissues of Moray Dalton’s tremendously entertaining books featuring Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard. Dalton (a pseudonym of Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir) wrote fifteen books featuring inspector Collier between 1929 and 1951 plus a host of others, and certainly in the six I have devoured in the past couple of weeks there is a distinct sense of these books being very much in the vein of those by E.C.R. Lorac. Indeed, there are neat connections between Dalton and Lorac (aka Edith Caroline Rivett) in that both shared the same publisher for a time in the 1930s, and that both their detectives are of Scottish origin. It seems that Dalton’s Inspector Collier precedes Lorac’s Macdonald by at least a year, but one rather likes to imagine conversations between the two at some point, wherein the pros and cons of different regional character traits for the Ideal Police Inspector would be discussed in detail over high tea or a glass of sherry. Or perhaps they both just had a thing for Scotsmen (or Scotchmen as they might well have called us in those times). Not that any particular Scots traits of Inspector Collier ever really show themselves within the books, and indeed there is a curious lack of development of the character at all. He seems like something of a wraith in many of the stories, barely there at times and completely invisible at others. Indeed, in ‘The Night Of Fear’ Collier takes a back seat for much of the book, the slack of his investigative role taken up by private investigator called Glide. Glide crops up in some later Dalton books and in ‘Night Of Fear’ it does feel as though Dalton is still working out which of her characters she likes the look of best. This isn’t a criticism, incidentally, for there is always more than enough going on in the books such that the flesh and bones of Collier almost becomes an irrelevance.

The Glide character is there again in ‘Death In The Cup’, as Dalton plays with poisoning and the peculiarly oppressive strictures of familial obedience and inheritance, much of which feels inevitably Old Fashioned whilst being simultaneously timelessly relevant. It is inevitable too that for 21st Century readers there may be a degree of shock at some of the language used and some of the social and moral mores on display, but frankly I have always seen these aspects as useful historical reference points rather than reasons to damn the books to funeral pyres of unwelcome impropriety. Dalton is as good (or as bad, depending on your perspective) at this as any, and ‘Death In The Cup’ is particularly striking in its use of the word ‘loonies’ to describe those with mental health issues. “I never had cared about living with a pair of loonies about, but they’d both seemed harmless enough” says one of the servant characters before adding the observation that one particular individual “spends his time cutting pictures out of papers and pasting them in albums when he isn’t digging in his bit of garden. Just a softy I always thought. Timid and shy.” Naturally I read this and laugh at how well it describes my younger self. Or indeed my present, older self. Minus the digging in the garden, obviously. Actually what feels most interesting in all this is just how relatively recently such phrasing has fallen out of popular usage. It was certainly still amongst the favoured terms in my own 1970s and 80s youth, although then again, we are now as far from those eras as I would then have been from Dalton’s…

Elsewhere, in ‘The Belfry Murder’, there are also the inevitable references to Jews, though in Dalton’s defence it has to be said that these are rather less nastily thrown and somewhat more balanced than in most other contemporaneous cases. Early in the book an elderly immigrant to England suggests that “The Jews are a wonderful people… They have their faults, but think of the way they’ve been treated” whilst later one of the Jewish characters (named, extraordinarily enough, Kafka) himself suggests that “There are Jews—and Jews—just as there are gentlemen and cads in every race.” In the context of mainstream popular English literature in 1933 I suspect such a stance may be quite remarkable, but I am no academic and I am sure others can either rebuke me for such an ill-informed comment or suggest that this is indeed the case.

If Dalton’s attitude towards Jews may be oddly out of kilter with with the established and unsavoury mainstream vilification to be found elsewhere at the time, then her attitude towards transvestism, as found in the extraordinary ‘The Strange Case of Harriet Hall’ book of 1936 is positively enlightened. It is no great spoiler to give the game away on the cross-dressing front, but it is certainly to Dalton’s credit that whilst it is clearly A Shocking Development to all involved, it is never portrayed as something to create great unease. The transvestism may be an important plot device, but there is never a suggestion that the personal sexual preferences of a character are central to any criminal activities. One could argue that this detachment of a sexual psychology from a criminal one is naive (it’s highly unlikely that any modern criminal investigator would fail to at least explore a possible connection) but then this naïveté is perhaps one of the very reasons some of us much prefer these Golden Age stories to more modern ones, where great pleasure seems to be taken in exploring supposedly ‘dark’ corners of life in excruciating detail. Dalton instead seems to say “this is no big deal”. It’s a personal choice. Nothing to do with us. I for one applaud such a position.

In ‘Harriet Hall’ and ‘The Belfry Murder’ there is a definite sense of Dalton moving her books more assuredly into the realms of the entertainment thriller than the detection puzzle genre, and its a move that, as previously mentioned, I personally appreciate. It all ratchets up to the next level in the marvellous ‘The Belgrave Manor Crime’ of 1935, in which child abduction, sexual depravity, hallucinogenic drug use, spiritualism and devil worship are thrown together in a splendid romp through the Sussex landscape. It recalls something of Miles Burton’s ‘The Secret of High Eldersham’ of five years previous, which has a similarly high-octane denouement involving a rush to save Innocents from the depraved clutches of occultists. In the spirit of populist entertainments, the majority of Dalton’s characters here are comic book caricatures of Bright Young Crowley-devotee Things, but that is certainly part of the appeal.

To get back into geographical peculiarities though, it is noticeable that whilst almost all of the Sussex place names are real (we visit Lewes, Arundel, Shoreham, and Littlehampton amongst others) the reference to South Devon, where a body is discovered early in the book is peculiarly named as Barme Head. Of course no such place exists, but some detective work based on a few other comments in the book suggest it could be based on the the area around Coleton, where the National Trust holds the marvellous Arts and Crafts / Art Deco decorated Coleton Fishacre property. This in itself is but a stone’s throw from Agatha Christie’s celebrated home at Greenway, and I wonder if the choice of a fictional South Devon location is as some kind of tangential reference to Christie? In ‘The Belfry Murder’ there is little doubt that the observation by Inspector Collier that “Quite recently a considerable amount of public money had been wasted and a number of officers had been employed for days in searching for a woman whose disappearance had proved to be voluntary and in the nature of a practical joke” is a less than veiled reference to Christie’s infamous 1926 disappearance.

With three more of the Dean Street Press’ run of Dalton’s books still to be read, I admit I am looking forward to being entertained until at least the start of the notional half term break (it feels strange that such long-established punctuation points in the year are currently essentially meaningless), at which point I will no doubt turn my attention elsewhere in the extensive Dean Street Press catalogue (Elizabeth Gill, Ianthe Jerrold, Joan Cowdroy, E & M.A. Radford and Basil Thomson having already been fully read and very much enjoyed in the past few years). So many treasures to yet unearth.

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