More Moray

The tragic death of publisher Rupert Heath at the start of this year was hard to take on a personal level, for whilst we had only fairly recently begun to exchange emails and messages he already felt like someone I might have known for most of my life. From an objective perspective too his death has been an immense loss, for his Dean Street Press imprint was such a steadfastly reliable source of great books by often un-heralded and ‘lost’ writers of the Golden Age and beyond. There may have been some I warmed to more than others, but that is to be expected when considering such great ‘labels’. I mean, show me the person who loves every band who released a record on Factory and I’ll show you someone who may be bending the truth somewhat.

I’m happy, however, that the five Moray Dalton reissues planned before Rupert’s passing have seen the light of day, for they are terrific books and firmly in the spirit of what Dean Street Press was all about. Whilst the British Library Classic Crime series may focus on one or two titles by an author being squeezed out at a rate of one per month, DSP’s strength was always in striving to make available a body of work by any given author in a batch decent enough to get one’s teeth into. There are few things in life more rewarding than stumbling on a series of books, after all, and I will be forever grateful to Rupert Heath for giving me plenty of opportunities to indulge that pleasure. Ianthe Jerrold, Robin Forsyth, E.R. Punshon, Molly Thynne, Christopher Bush, Basil Thomson, Elizabeth Gill, the Radfords and the brilliant Francis Vivian. Even Brian Flynn, if you must. Plus, of course, Moray Dalton.

I wrote about the first batch of Dalton books released by DSP back in 2020, when they provided excellent entertainment in the early months of The Virus. I wrote at the time that her serial detective Hugh Collier was something of a wraith in the books and that whilst there seemed to be little character development this was not necessarily a bad thing. Whilst this is still true in most of the Collier series books I’ve read, in ‘The Mystery Of The Kneeling Woman’ there is a degree more colour added to the background of the Scotland Yard detective as he attempts to disentangle a mystery involving the death of a village recluse, poisoned chocolates, church brasses, bitter reflections on The Great War, obsessive revenge fantasies, small children, ‘memory loss’ and characters determinedly Taking The Blame. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that this is the book in which Collier’s love life is laid out for us and his future state of marriage explained, and Dalton confidently paints Collier as a Thoroughly Decent Chap. Perhaps one of the reasons I warm to Collier is that, besides being a fellow Scot, he reminds me of Francis Vivian’s tremendous Inspector Knollis in that he eschews all the fluff and flummery of the amateur sleuth and replaces it with quiet hard graft. Knollis famously disregards notions of coincidence and Collier is certainly hewn from the same stone, pointing out that “What some people call the science of detection is simply the accumulation of apparently irrelevant and unimportant facts.” One can imagine Knollis nodding sagely in agreement.

There is much, then, in ‘The Mystery of The Kneeling Woman’ that appeals, and there are some tremendous little digs thrown into the mix by Dalton through her various characters. The City versus Country trope is well served by the Yard detective sergeant Duffield who, amongst other things, betrays “some ignorance of life in the country” by suggesting that “one day must be very like another in these villages”. Elsewhere he suggests that the furnishings of a Country House now owned by a business magnate “smells of the Tottenham Court Road”, a line which I admit made me snort into my sherry. Indeed, Dalton enjoys playing on the trope of New Money playing at being Gentry, having one of her village characters sniffly say about the aforementioned business magnate that “he’s not one of the old landed gentry” but rather “a retired manufacturer [who] made his pile during the War.” As the book progresses there is certainly a sense that Money might be able to buy one property and titles, but it does not, as Collier later wryly observes “bring happiness.” He does, naturally, unravel all the bizarrely entwined threads of the case and gives us all a satisfyingly brief explanation at the book’s conclusion. None of your tedious extended expostulations of clever deductions for Dalton, thank goodness.

In many ways ‘The Mystery of The Kneeling Woman’ then is a romantic tragedy masquerading as a detective story (or vice versa) and is none the worse for that. The following year’s ‘Death In The Dark’ is every bit as fine and every bit as deliciously bonkers as Dalton gleefully throws circus performers, drugs, disreputable doctors and a private zoo into the mix. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!… There is a nice thread of continuity between ‘Kneeling Woman’ and this one in that it is the same small child from the previous book who pulls Collier into the mystery of this one. The major protagonist, however, is the sister (Judy) of a circus acrobat deviously framed for murder. She inveigles her way into the lion’s den (almost literally – the Big Cat in question is actually a Tiger) in a bid to Learn The Awful Truth, uncover the devilish plot and save her brother from the hangman’s noose. As you can probably tell, it’s a marvellous thriller of a novel as Collier and Judy race to prevent a terrible miscarriage of justice. Bonus points for the South West of England setting, with Seaton and Sidmouth both getting a name check.

The third and last of the Inspector Collier books to be republished by DSP is 1939’s fantastic ‘Death In The Forest’. I say fantastic because it really is fantastical with a central trope of lycanthropy and a rather marvellous section that takes place during a revolution in the fictional South American country of San Rinaldo. Indeed, this part of the book reminds me of ‘Tintin and The Picaros’ with General Alcazar leading his revolution in San Theodoros. These days one could most likely not get away with such a cartoonish portrayal of what used be called ’Banana Republics’ and in some respects it is perhaps surprising that Herge did so in 1974. In 1939 however there were certainly no qualms about portraying these South American countries as a ‘backward’ realm where superstition was ancient and deeply rooted whilst notions of government merely fleeting and transitory and dependent on who had most money/power at any given moment. Which rather sounds like a description of contemporary global politics, but there we are…

‘Death In The Forest’ then continues Dalton’s preference for throwing multiple ingredients into the mix and blending them into a peculiarly delicious concoction. So as well as the suggestions of werewolves we have more poisonings, star-crossed lovers, family betrayals, domineering mothers and self-obsessed sons hellbent on a life of frippery and foppery, plus the kitchen sink besides. There is an also a delightful piece of self-reference when Collier is confronted by the notion of lycanthropy. “I’ve come across some strange things myself” Collier points out. “I was in charge of the Belgrave Manor case, you know. You mayn’t have heard of that. A witch’s coven on the Sussex Downs.” Indeed, as in that ‘Belgrave Manor Crime’, Dalton seems to take enormous pleasure in writing a marvellously entertaining piece of fantasy fiction where the basic form of the detective novel serves merely as a foundation for her active (over)imagination. I suspect that such wild flights of fancy might put off fans of the more, ah, ‘considered’ practitioners of detective fiction, but even they must surely appreciate the genius of Dalton’s deployment of the grounded and reliable Collier as foil to the fantastical. Indeed, it’s this marvellous drama of contrasts that make Moray Dalton and Inspector Collier amongst my favourite combinations.

I admit then that the lack of Inspector Collier in the final two Dalton novels to be published by DSP filled me with a little apprehension, as did the shifting of setting from the familiar South of England to Italy. I need not have worried though, for Dalton’s sense of place is, if anything, even more at play in her 1945 novel ‘The Death of Eve’ and the following year’s ‘Death At The Villa’. In contrast to her tremendously fantastical mysteries of the interwar years, these two stand-alone yet connected novels are altogether more serious and sombre affairs and admirably display the fact that Dalton is, for all the wild and unbelievable excitement of her earlier books, quite simply a Good Writer.

The two books may be standalone novels set some forty or more years apart, yet they are certainly connected by the notion that history is a thread where events pulse through eras and inform the future. ‘The Murder of Eve’ and ‘Death at the Villa’ may be set in two different Italy’s, but it is clear that Dolton is saying something about how Money and Power corrupt absolutely and that whilst Political Ideology may be used as a cloak, it is essentially the same patriarchal power structure that prevails and that it is women who pay the greatest price. Indeed, the title of ‘The Murder of Eve’ kind of flags this up from the start, just in case you miss the point being made…

Both of these novels, then, feel much more Modern than any of the Inspector Collier books, and whilst Dalton still effortlessly employs her skills to provide well-paced narratives, there is little that is light about these books other than the writer’s deftness of touch. One of these light touches is another of those lovely self-referential comments, where amateur sleuth Roger Fordyce admits that “It was comparatively easy for the detective heroes of the thrillers he most enjoyed. They usually had the resources of New Scotland Yard at their disposal, or, if they happened to be amateurs, they had a faithful, though thick-headed, friend in attendance, or a valet who was also a boxing champion and an expert photographer.” Fordyce does eventually employ the assistance of a friend in the form of disgraced piano teacher Lily who, it must be added, is far from thick-headed. From this point however Dalton rather subverts the usual form for amateur sleuthing, and this is another sign perhaps of a bleaker darkness at work. Meanwhile, for fans of Postcard Records there is a mention of Louis Wain’s cats… The book is fired through with this kind of turn of the (19th to 20th) Century detail and if its central obsession with the idea of so-called White Slavery seems quaint, then re-phrasing it as sex trafficking perhaps makes it feel more, depressingly, relevant and up to date.

‘Death At The Villa’ meanwhile portrays a much more contemporaneous Italy as Dalton sets the story in the midst of WW2. In this Italy the crumbling aristocracy struggles to survive alongside the peasantry, neither being particularly safe against the pervasive evil of fascism. That being said, it is of course the exploited peasantry who suffer most and Dalton isn’t shy about making this observation. Her main protagonists though are Richard Drew – a Thoroughly Decent Englishman (of course) – and Alda, an Italian woman whose status straddles the vanishing world of aristocracy (to which she belongs through blood, if not position) and the harsh realities of living in a fascist state. The English RAF flyer Richard naturally plays the part of the plucky fighter and is straight out of a Richard Hannay novel, which makes me wonder if the character’s name is indeed a cheeky nod to Hannay. You may not be altogether surprised to learn that the book is in part a romantic thriller that builds around the relationship between him and Alda, and in this it works admirably. Yet it is also a bleaker treatise on the savagery endlessly perpetrated by the patriarchy and alongside ‘The Murder of Eve’ it stands as a highly entertaining but essentially sober piece of fiction.

Again, bonus points too for the mention of the South West of England in ’Death at the Villa’, this time the little Devon coastal town (then village, I suppose) of Beer, where Richard Drew recalls a holiday “when he was about eight years old, a holiday when the sun always shone and there were shrimps for tea, and the object of his hero worship, a good-natured fisherman, allowed him to sit by him on the beach and help to mend nets that smelt deliciously of tar.”

It is of course a source of profound sorrow that these Moray Dalton books may be the final bow from Dean Street Press. They are, however, a mighty fine high on which to lower the curtain.

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