The Strange Case of Harriet Hall (1936) by Moray Dalton

Dalton was the penname of Katherine Dalton Renoir (1881-1963), who began writing crime fiction in 1924, continuing until 1951. She had two main series characters: Scotland Yard Inspector, Hugh Collier, who features in 15 cases and Hermann Glide, a private inquiry agent. Overall, she wrote 29 crime novels and today’s read is the 7th appearance of Collier. On a complete tangent I was intrigued to note that she wrote a title called The Black Death, which is described as combining post-apocalyptic sci fiction with the murder mystery. Sci-fi is not really my thing, but the sheer bizarreness of this does intrigue me, admittedly.

The story opens with Amy Steer struggling to find work. She is young and healthy but lacks training and qualifications. Whilst job hunting in the newspaper, she finds an advert calling for all relatives of Julius Horace Steer to get in touch, a man who so happened to be her father, who died when she was very little. Couple of messages exchanged and Amy is meeting her aunt, Harriet Hall, who immediately wants her to come and live with her in the country, at a lodge a friend has allowed to her to live in, rent free. Whilst she is doling out the money for Amy to get new clothes, she is also keen for her niece to catch the eye of the friend’s son, Anthony Dene. Readers’ ears will prick up when Amy is not met at the station and even more so when Harriet is not at the lodge, despite evidence of someone having recently been there. The answer to why she wasn’t there to greet her niece, is soon revealed when a dog begins scratching at the cover of a well… Yet the reader themselves are only scratching at the surface of a case, which has a myriad of twists and turns…

Overall Thoughts

In a nutshell Dalton is definitely an author I feel I need to return to, as she has a not so common talent for combining strong characterisation, with an equally tantalising plot. In particular I want to bring up how effectively Dalton orders plot events and her timings for revealing specific pieces of information. This does not mean that she holds out on the reader right until the end, but she definitely chooses her moment for unleashing key points linked to the case. Consequently, the reader certainly has a more of an edge-of-your-seat read and the final quarter definitely doesn’t stint on action. I also think it is important that the twists Dalton includes are not just there to surprise and shock, but also successfully widen the mystery, raising further questions for the reader to ponder.

Dalton, furthermore, utilises her opening chapters well, to set up certain expectations within the reader, which she then of course has much gleeful fun pulling down later on. I especially liked the initial setup of the younger relative going to live with the older relation. It was faintly reminiscent of Dickens’ novels, though it is interesting how in this instance, it is the impoverished younger relative who is more vulnerable and less conniving, as usually it seems to me to be the other way round, of the inevitably richer older relative, being more in danger of exploitation.

Whilst this story does not technically have a closed set of suspects, the narrative does focus on one particular family, the Denes and I think it does this very well, as their guilty consciences and incomplete alibis muddy the investigative waters for Collier. Only comprised of a mother and three grown up children, I think the author is good at presenting the reader with contrasting and distinctive family members, who all react to unfolding events in different ways. For me they came across as much more complex and intricate personalities which is delightfully borne out later on in the story.

The delivery of the solution is another item on the list of things Dalton did well and to be utterly paradoxical, I enjoyed its clear indirect writing style. Thankfully this is not a difficult novel to track down, as the good old Dean Street Press have reprinted it earlier this year. So you’ve got no excuse for not getting a copy!

Rating: 4.5/5

Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Professional is main sleuth

Calendar of Crime: May (2) Author’s Birth Month

See also: There are also a rake of other reviews for this title including: the Puzzle Doctor, Moira, heavenali, Tom Cat, Jane, Elaine Simpson-Long, dead yesterday, Rekha and Les. I certainly got to the party very late!

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