The Belgrave Manor Crime (Moray Dalton)

“The Goat of Mendes – the devil himself!”

Palmist Madame Luna desperately seeks the help of Cosmo Thor, authority on the occult sciences. Within days, her body has been found at the foot of a cliff; Thor is in hospital, fighting for his life after a suspicious car accident; and Mme Luna’s child is in grave peril. There are sinister doings afoot in darkest Sussex…

Curt Evans rightly describes Belgrave as “an impressive tale of outrĂ© mystery and lurid crime, with a cast of compelling characters, both good and bad”. This is easily the best Moray Dalton I’ve read so far: a swift, tense occult thriller in the grand tradition. (I raced through the book in an evening.)

Dennis Wheatley’s classic Devil Rides Out had appeared the year before; its influence is obvious on Dalton’s tale of Satanist covens, human sacrifice, and murder, with a climax on the Downs just as the Horned God is about to claim his victim.

Inspector Collier acts unofficially this time; his investigations are a busman’s holiday, and he lacks the support of the Yard as he faces a particularly nasty lot of villains – including a loathsome specimen obviously based on Aleister Crowley, the self-styled wickedest man in the world. (“There was no mistaking that short, fattish figure, a shade too sleek and well groomed, that pallid hairless face with its wide, lipless mouth and heavy-lidded, watchful eyes.”)

“I am the Great Beast, the Antichrist… Can I borrow a fiver?”

As I wrote yesterday, discussing The Belfry Murder: “Both books end with the revelation of villainy in high places; the ensuing scandal could shatter confidence in the Establishment.” The Satanists, for instance, include a millionaire philanthropist, a wealthy patron of the arts, and an aristocratic Society beauty. The police are reluctant to move against such famous and powerful people, and risk their careers to defeat them.

The mystery plotting is slightly weak; there are no real clues to the coven leader’s identity, other than a (possibly innocent) reluctance to be involved. But this can easily be forgiven in an adventure thriller, dealing in surprise and shock. The ambiguous ending is effective; Dalton leaves it unclear whether the person shot dead is indeed the villain, or whether (more likely) this doubt is simply an attempt to save face.

I would place Dalton in the Bailey School (to borrow Mike Grost’s classification): the death of someone who knows too much leads to the revelation of a monstrous conspiracy; the detectives intervene to prevent a terrible crime; the investigators’ lives are threatened; and there’s even a child in danger.

Other parts recall Gladys Mitchell: the uncanny in low-key, naturalistic rural England. (There are even ordnance maps.)

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