The Strange Case of Harriet Hall (Moray Dalton)

Moray Dalton excels at quiet, middle-class murders; obsession, devotion, and selfishness lie behind the respectable façade. Harriet Hall has planted herself on the Denes; she obviously knows too much about this seemingly typical family, and her body is found in the well at the bottom of the garden, her head smashed in. Dalton’s gifts are those of the straight novelist; she depicts snobbish old ladies, sweet but autocratic mothers, and beautiful but selfish daughters with an accurate, dispassionate eye. The puzzle plot is less satisfying; concealing the criminal is not Dalton’s priority. The reader should identify the culprit midway through Chapter XVII, while a secondary killer appears in the last quarter. This time, the police let sleeping murderers lie. Harriet Hall prefigures Agatha Christie’s character-focused novels of the 1940s, but Dalton’s interest in psychological abnormality and her subordination of plot to character is almost postwar; had she been born a couple of generations later, she would have written crime novels rather than detective stories, and could have been a serious rival to Ruth Rendell.


Times Literary Supplement (25th January 1936): Amy Steer was very hard up: she was more than excited when she saw an advertisement in a newspaper asking for relatives of her late father.  The result of answering the advertisement was Aunt Harriet, who gave Amy ₤100 to buy clothes and told her to come and live with her in Sussex.  On the way down to Lennor, Amy met an attractive young man in the train, who, on hearing that she was going to live with his neighbour Aunt Harriet disappeared in a strange way.  There was no sign of Aunt Harriet when Amy arrived at North Lodge, and shortly afterwards Amy’s alleged aunt was found murdered.  Another murder made the mystery still more complicated.  The story is told competently, and the reader will be kept guessing.

Observer (Torquemada, 2nd February 1936): Moray Dalton begins The Strange Case of Harriet Hall with an authentic picture of heartbreak in the search for work, “and so out again through swing doors, along corridors, down stairs, down and out.  Down and out!”  And thenceforward an intriguing book holds us to its last rather cryptic dissyllable.  We are mainly concerned with an old well in a cottage garden; about this place of tangled bushes and nettle beds lingers an aroma of horror and mystery.  And the first inquest only tends to thicken this aroma and make it more noisome.  How the atmosphere is cleared it is the fortunate reader’s pleasure to discover.

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