This is my second Dillon read, having read her final published detective novel, Death in the Quadrangle (1956), for the Tuesday Night Bloggers academia theme last month. Death at Crane’s Court (1953) is the first in the series, set in an Irish coastal hotel-spa in Galway, a setting which reminds me a little of Rutland’s Knock Murderer Knock (1938). George Arrow is on his way to this spa, named Crane’s Court, in the unpleasant knowledge that he may not have long to live, since his doctor has told him that his heart is in ‘a precarious position.’ Rest and no exertion is all that can be offered to prolong his life. The spa is recommended by the doctor and Arrow acquiesces thinking it as good a place as any to die in. On his way to the hotel-spa he bumps into the unpleasant John Burden, who has recently inherited a business from his deceased uncle, Mr Murray, which surprised him as he was convinced that his widowed cousin, Barbara Henry would inherit. Burden mirthfully ponders whether to eject Barbara or to keep her on in the business, showing Burden to have a strongly manipulative turn of mind. Of course the reader is not surprised when it is revealed that the business in question is Crane’s Court.
Arrow quickly makes a friend in another long-term resident, Professor Daly (a character who also appears in Death in the Quadrangle) and overall he is quite popular with the other guests. The same cannot be said for Burden who goes out of his way to change how things are run, deliberately provoking the long term residents and getting their backs up just because he can. The only person who is friendly with him is the receptionist Eleanor Keane, who like Burden wants the elderly guests to be ejected. Burden is especially unkind to the old ladies, which provokes Daly into saying that: ‘To be old – what a crime it is! Old freaks – old witches – old harridans – age is the real offence.’ He also remarks that Burden is ‘playing a dangerous game,’ which is quickly proven correct when Burden is found stabbed in his rooms.
There is a wide cast of suspects for Inspector Kenny to choose from. Did Mrs Robinson, the ‘queen bee’ of the long term residents resort to drastic measures, being unable to put up with Burden’s humiliations any longer? Or was the killer the chauffeur, driven to murder due to jealousy over his fiancée? Barbara is also a popular suspect due to how she inherits the hotel-spa, since Burden had not made a will. There is only one person unhappy about Burden’s death and that is Keane, who announces that she had recently become engaged to him, an event which looks peculiar considering she was also apparently engaged to Burden’s uncle before he unexpectedly died. Events become more sinister when George takes tea with another resident, Mrs Fennell, who is convinced that Mr Murray was also murdered. She has this from the best authority she says – the centuries old ghost of the original owner of Crane’s Court. But maybe there is a glimmer of truth in what she says?
Kenny initially wonders how he will get the truth out of such a closed group of people, who he doesn’t have an affinity with (a problem he had in Death in the Quadrangle). Dillon makes us, like Kenny, be suspicious of every character’s versions of events and things are never as simple as they seem, with the killer’s identity being revealed pages from the end of the story. But who will the killer be? No one is exempt from suspicion in this book.
Characterisation is one of Dillon’s strengths and the different personalities and relationship dynamics are paramount in this book. Even for the minor characters you get a strong sense of who they are in a short space of time. There are a number of interesting characters because Dillon makes them neither wholly good nor wholly bad, even the unlikeable Burden. Although it was Barbara Henry and Eleanor Keane who intrigued me the most. Is Barbara a schemer or an honest woman? And even Eleanor, who is quite vindictive in some respects, is shown in a more sympathetic light at points, with her behaviour and attitudes may be being fuelled by unkind parents. Furthermore, the elderly residents are not depicted as blameless victims, frequently showing their own violent streaks and snobbery.
A Comic Touch
Again, as in Death at the Quadrangle, Dillon’s writing has a gentle comedy to it and it is not overdone. I think one of the funniest parts is when Daly is ringing for Inspector Kenny of which we can only see Daly’s comments and responses:
‘What’s that? Of course I haven’t touched anything!… Well, how could I telephone you without handling the telephone?… Yes, it’s here in the room… Well, how sharper than a serpent’s tooth is an ungrateful – what’s there?… Come to think of it, I needn’t have called you at all. Next time I’ll let you find your own body…’
Death is dealt with quite lightly (though not ridiculously so), as Burden’s death ultimately becomes a helpful conversation for a love struck character. Additionally near the end of the novel, a minor character called Martin Hogan, an irrepressible reporter, ultimately gets the last laugh with Inspector Kenny, making for another pleasing funny moment.
In contrast to Death in the Quadrangle, Daly’s role is much smaller in this story, with Kenny being more at the forefront. Perhaps Dillon saw the potential for Daly after having written this first novel and then decided to give him a bigger role in other works. Dillon is adept at recreating closed social settings and she creates a good hotel-spa milieu, one which you could imagine Miss Marple walking into very easily. Daly is a bit like Miss Marple in that he gets confided in a lot, though I think Miss Marple has a much stricter sense of justice than Daly does. On the whole I think the killer was well-chosen and the motivation complex but plausible. I gave this book a slightly higher rating than Death at the Quadrangle because I think the investigation in this book is more overt and direct.