One by One They Disappeared (Moray Dalton)

  • By Moray Dalton
  • First published: UK: Jarrolds, 1929; US: Harper, 1929

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

One By One They Disappeared introduces Dalton’s police detective Inspector Collier. It’s the old tontine story: an American businessman distributes his fortune between his fellow shipwreck survivors, giving the greedy and unscrupulous motive to off each other before he dies.

Daily News, 26 April 1929

It moves quickly, with plenty of thrillerish action.  Nefarious Italian counts and drug-addicted artists plot murder in Venetian palazzi; the heroine is kidnapped; and the bodies pile up.

As a whodunit, though, it’s weak. The murderer is obvious from the beginning; as a rule of thumb, suspect the outsider, who has no motive, and no real place in the story. He also has the help of four accomplices.

The book seems to have fooled readers of the time; Will Cuppy called the book “baffling”; the NY Times thought the mystery well sustained; and the TLS said “Mr. Dalton keeps his principal villain well concealed and springs his identity upon the reader, who may be excused for not having spotted him before.”

I prefer Steeman’s Six hommes morts.

Blurb (US)

Nine men drifted in an open boat for three days after the “Coptic” went down, eight quite ordinary men and a quixotic, wealthy old American who would have died but for the kindness of the others. In his gratitude he arranged an annual dinner to celebrate the anniversary of their rescue, and further announced that his entire fortune was to be divided among these eight men. But when a year had passed only two of the dinner guests turned up. One by one the survivors of the “Coptic” were meeting death by what appeared to be unconnected and perfectly natural accidents. But it was murder, cold and sure as science, baffling and terrifying.

The originality of the situation, the mysterious yet perfectly plausible accidents, and the suspense as to who will be the next victim, make this a story of unparalleled thrills.

Contemporary reviews

An elderly American philanthropist who for years has given an annual dinner to his eight fellow-survivors of a shipwreck, announces that he will leave his fortune evenly divided among the group.  And one by one they disappear.  Inspector Collier traces the separate crimes to the murderer, thereby clearing Corinna’s lover of suspicion.

Books (NY Herald Tribune) (Will Cuppy, 17th March 1929, 100w): Rather jumpy but baffling.

NY Times (17th March 1929, 220w): The mystery is well sustained, but when the solution comes there is one incident that imposes rather a severe strain on the reader’s credulity.

Daily News (29 April 1929): If eight men are to benefit equally by a will, and one by one they disappear, who will be left to get the money? This is the problem that puzzled Inspector Collier and his young friend, Mr. Freyne. As the story proceeds the algebra becomes more complicated, because x remains very exasperatingly unknown. The real hero of Mr. Dalton’s very nicely-contrived mystery is a cat whose unswerving devotion to the cause of right is a pleasant quality to find attributed to this often maligned animal.

Dundee Courier (16 May 1929): A swagger suite in a select hotel on the Embankment, a Tudor mansion with a lily pond in its gardens, and a comfy lamp-lit parlour are among the settings of Moray Dalton’s stagey sensation, One by One They Disappeared. This romance of subtle crime starts from a pleasant sentiment – a recherche repast provided by an American millionaire who once a year invites his fellow survivors from an ocean tragedy of war time. One by one the guests disappear under queer circumstances that invite investigation by a Scotland Yard sleuth. Mr. Dalton is an adept at this sort of game, and here his fancy has a razor keenness and his style is sharp and vivid as bare branches against a frosty sunset.

Times Literary Supplement (23rd May 1929): Mr. Pakenham, a wealthy and grateful American, having escaped in an open boat from a torpedoed ship in the War, is accustomed to entertain his fellow-survivors at a sumptuous banquet every year in London on the anniversary of their rescue.  At one of these he makes the dreadful mistake of announcing that he has arranged to bequeath his fortune to those among them who survive him, and is greatly shocked to learn of the disappearance of several of them in suspicious circumstances.  More than that, a clever attempt is made to dispose of him in Venice, and in order to facilitate the work of those who are helping him to discover the author of all the murders, he pretends to sicken of the poison which was so subtly to have been administered to him and even to die.  The murderer has worked cleverly to throw suspicion upon another man who lives under a quite undeserved cloud.  Although she is not a beneficiary under the will the unhappy heroine is also, for other reasons, marked down as a victim, and is saved at the last moment by the intervention from a quite unexpected source while imprisoned in the very room in which another girl has already been done to death.  Mr. Dalton keeps his principal villain well concealed and springs his identity upon the reader, who may be excused for not having spotted him before.