The Condamine Case (Moray Dalton)


Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Condamine Case saddles a good pastiche of M.R. James and a proto-Hammer scenario with an average whodunnit. It has a lot of potential, which Dalton doesn’t quite bring out.

In the mid-17th century, Hugh Condamine, the squire of Little Baring, fell in love with the wild Vashti; his jealous wife denounced the gypsy girl and her mother as witches, and the pair were drowned by witch-hunters. But the dead do not rest easy; Delia is pursued to madness and her own death by ghostly visions of black, wet hair like seaweed. Three hundred years later, talented director Stephen Latimer decides to film the story … and finds more than he bargained for.

There you have the ingredients for a spinechilling tale, and Dalton starts well. The first half is one of the best things I have read by her, but I feel she spoilt the story by treating it as a whodunnit.

She is interested in the character drama, but she is constrained by the formats of the genre, so she has to tell the story that interests her at second hand. And mystery plotting was not Dalton’s strength; her earlier books showed she was excellent at character (particularly of obsessed women), atmosphere (gloomy, creepy), and unease – but the plots are often transparent, and the clueing weak.

Condamine is a stronger mystery than The Art School Murders, but it lacks something. The solution covers the facts, it’s adequate, not exciting, and the clueing is dubious. The chair / letter clue is valid, but Dalton keeps back evidence from the reader: the ROT13: wrg naq pelfgny ornqf at the end of Chapter XV show ROT13: Whyvn’f guilt. But we’re not told what they are; we only see that Inspector Collier has discovered something. Other evidence is produced after the arrest, at the magistrates’ court: the sort of pencil and paper used to write the confession letter; the quarrel Mrs. Cullen overheard (although we’re told earlier ROT13: gung Vqn jnf certanag). The film elements are not as well integrated as they could have been, either; Latimer and his deputy Evan Hughes are connected to the Condamine circle, but the actors play only a minor role in the story.

There are flashes of something stronger and altogether stranger: the suggestion that Ida is the reincarnation of Vashti, and a witch; or that Julia is another witch. (I would like to see what John Dickson Carr or Gladys Mitchell, those masters of the fantastical detective story, would have made of this.)

Condamine might have worked better as a crime-cum-horror novel, without much mystery. I can imagine a sinister, sinewy book, with a heroine as beautiful and deadly as a succubus; gaunt, queer, witch-like women, stalking like crows across the hills; their weak menfolk – bumbling, complacent husbands and pallid, parasitical sons; their prey – one man enmeshed in a tempestuous, violent love affair, suffocating in his mistress’s coils, squeezing his talent out of him; his friend desperate to protect his girlfriend from the menace that threatens her. It would be about two sorts of obsession (ROT13: rebgvp, zngreany), possessive love, jealousy, with ambiguous suggestions of reincarnation and black magic (even if the characters themselves are unaware, or only dimly so). The film would play a bigger part; the actors might find themselves taken over by the parts they play, or the film would show wrong and uncanny things.

That’s the book I wish Dalton had written – and, if Curt Evans’s comparisons of her to Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine are anything to go by her, it’s a book she could have written.


Contemporary reviews

Daily Mirror (26 May 1947): A film company is in Somerset to make a picture based on a seventeenth-century witch-hunt, when a couple of up-to-date murders intrude, and that starts the police hunting, too. First part of The Condamine Case, by Moray Dalton, is overloaded with ancestral detail, but once the modern plot gets going the pace is brisk enough.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): If the dust jacket is to be trusted, this is the author’s 17th book, and remarkably fresh and unstereotyped if so.  Indeed, here is a neglected man, for his earlier work shows him to be a conscientious workman, wit a flair for the unusual, and capable of clever touches.  The present volume presents Inspector Collier’s capable investigation of two murders literally “staged” during the filming of a 16th-century witch-hunting movie in the west of England.


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