- By Moray Dalton
- First published: UK: Sampson Low, 1933
- Availability: Dean Street Press, 2020, introduction by Curtis Evans
“It’s a bonny thing,” said he. “Just see how it glints and sparkles. Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil’s pet baits. In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed.” – The Blue Carbuncle
The Eye of Nero has a two-thousand-year history of bloodshed and murder. Through it, the last of the Julio-Claudians watched Peter die suspended upside down on his cross; it passed to Catherine the Great, and then to her descendants until it was lost in the upheaval of the Revolution. Now it may have surfaced in Britain. A waiter is stabbed because he knew where it was; an antique dealer dies because he didn’t; his daughter is kidnapped and buried alive in a rubbish dump; and a young rotter hangs himself.
This is, like many of Dalton’s other books, a mystery thriller rather than a detective story proper: fast-paced, smoothly written, and compulsively readable, but without the “whodunit?” tug of the puzzle plot. There are Romanoff jewels, abducted heroines, and gangs led by secret adversaries (“Mr. Brown”) in white linen masks, but the investigation is more action than sitting and thinking. Inspector Collier burgles houses, hunts with bloodhounds, and is nearly murdered himself. The arch-villain is a good surprise, but clues are slim; Collier realizes the truth right at the end only because X was in the house with the victim. There are also intriguing glimpses of warped psychology (in the H.C. Bailey manner) that I’d like to have seen more developed.
Curt Evans called the book “an uncommonly rich and engrossing tale of crime and assorted dastardly evildoing”; he was particularly pleased by the positive depiction of the Jewish characters, wealthy art collector Isaac Kafka and his son Maurice, engaged to the heroine. Their portrayal is refreshingly free from anti-Semitic slurs, but Isaac Kafka draws attention to the prejudices Jews faced in 1930s Britain.
“A Jew may be straight or he may be crooked, but he’s very seldom a fool. Are you one of those who despise my race, Inspector? Do you talk of dirty Jews?”
“No, sir,” and there was no mistaking Collier’s sincerity. “I have friends – and one a very dear friend – of your nation.”
Anti-Semitism persisted in British mysteries well after the end of the Golden Age; earlier today, Curt drew attention to a particularly ugly sample in Josephine Bell’s China Roundabout (1956). (There were also many earlier philosemitic mysteries and thrillers – including one by, of all people, Sax Rohmer.)
Dalton’s politics seem to have been decidedly liberal, possibly even left-wing. Both this and The Belgrave Manor Crime (review tomorrow) are sympathetic towards the poor and the outsider; the wealthy and the aristocracy, on the other hand, are often hard and vicious sensationalists, living only for pleasure and decadent thrills. Inspector Collier reflects:
You couldn’t put tabs on people of this class. Moral standards were out of date, and they didn’t know the meaning of fear. No jobs to lose, no financial worries. At least, he supposed not.
Lady Jocelyn Vaste is initially shallow and bitter, marrying for money; her only redeeming feature is her love for her brother. She matures over the course of her book; she realizes that her love for her fiancé is genuine, and weds him. (The experienced reader would expect her to marry likeable young poulterer Martin Drury, a gentile.)
Her counterpart in Belgrave – a drug-addict and would-be murderess – is the sort of woman Lady Jocelyn might have become: “pampered and spoiled, sophisticated, over-civilised, harking back to the primitive, the music of the jungle … amoral”.
Both books end with the revelation of villainy in high places; the ensuing scandal could shatter confidence in the Establishment. The mastermind conveniently dies – by their own hand in one case, shot dead in the other – and the police hush up the affair.
Times Literary Supplement (28th September 1933): The author writes in an excellent, clear, vivid style. His descriptions are economical and effective; his dialogue is natural and stamps his characters. His persons, men and women, are touched in convincingly with an eye for essentials, and they are consistent and credible, in spite of their singular deeds and adventures. The plot concerns the exploits of a gang of criminals, the constitution of which also has originality. The unmasking of the criminals does not depend on any special method of inquiry or the talents of any specially gifted investigator. The story unfolds itself in a series of adventures, from which the servants of justice eventually emerge triumphant. The reader is inclined for a time to think the solution is all too obvious: he will find he is mistaken. The latter part of the book especially works up a very agreeable suspense and reveals mystery within mystery most successfully. It must be said that the ultimate solution is not wholly satisfactory: here is the one point where the reader must feel the bounds of possibility overstepped. Even here, however, touches of character are skilfully brought in to assist belief, and the reader’s enjoyment of the book will be hardly impaired.