Friday 22 February 2019

Forgotten Book - The Strange Case of Harriet Hall

Dean Street Press have done great work in recent years, making available again a very large number of previously obscure Golden Age mysteries. Although their main market is in ebooks, they also issue print versions which are nicely produced paperbacks and which are well worth seeking out if you prefer that format (as I do). Their approach has enabled them to print long runs of the works of certain authors, such as Punshon and Bush, and this is a valuable service for readers. Not so much because thousands of people will want to read the complete works, but because at long last fans have the chance to pick and choose titles, according to their taste.

The Press's latest ventures have been to reissue books by authors I haven't previously read, Moray Dalton and E. and M. Radford. Another merit of their approach is that they include informative introductions. The Dalton books are introduced by Curtis Evans, and the Radford books by Nigel Moss. And in the case of Dalton's The Strange Case of Harriet Hall, there is also a very useful afterword which deals with a subject that would otherwise be a spoiler.

Moray Dalton was the pen-name of Katherine Dalton Renoir (1881-1963), who wrote a couple of early novels before indulging in criminal fiction from 1924 to 1951. In that time, she produced no fewer than 29 books, but they have long been hard to find; now Dean Street Press has issued five, and there may well be more to come. In her early days, she shared a publisher with E.C.R. Lorac, but never achieved anything approaching Lorac's success.

On the evidence of this book, Dalton was a good writer. She has a nice turn of phrase, and her interest in character is striking. I was impressed. There is also a memorable plot twist before the story is half-way through. On the debit side, there is a certain lack of focus about the story. We begin with one likeable character who has an odd encounter with Harriet Hall before attention switches to tensions within the Dene family, which comprises a mother and three siblings. The Denes clearly fascinated Dalton, and relations within the family become central to the story. I felt that the later plot developments didn't exactly reflect a commitment to fair play plotting, and I sensed that Dalton was less concerned about unravelling the mystery in a satisfactory fashion than most Golden Age writers. This may help to account for her obscurity. But her prose, straightforward and readable, is of a quality to make this novel well worth reading. 


Unknown said...

Martin, I hadn't heard of the Dean Street Press but I'm glad to have been introduced to some definitely interesting authors (and titles: how about He Dies and Makes no Sign!). Also good to see some of the late lamented Tim Heald's work (cricket as well as crime). And a long list of neglected women writers undeservingly written off as "middlebrows" and so of no contemporary interest.
Thank you for the introduction!
Em Storey

Martin Edwards said...

Nice to hear from you, Em. I very much agree about Tim Heald, who was a good companion and writer and is much missed.