Thursday, February 21, 2019

Serpentine! The Capital Murder (1932), by James Z. Alner

Take it from Alfred A. Knopf or leave it; but he has published a book by an author whose name he doesn’t even know.  It is a detective story, called “The Capital Murder,” and the name given is James Z. Alner, freely acknowledged to be just a nom de plume.
            The only address accompanying the manuscript was New York General Delivery.  And checks are cleared by this “Mr. Alner” through the Chase National Bank.  The contract was signed by mail and all communication has been through the good offices of the U. S. Postmasters General and his able staff.
            The leading character in the story is an epidemiologist, which gives rise to the theory that the author is a scientist.  However, he might be a stone mason or an actor at leisure or even the long-absent Judge Crater, for all Mr. Knopf knows.  It is very mysterious and puzzling and has aroused the interest of the Knopf office no end.  However, it is very likely that when a statement of royalties falls due, Mr. Knopf will have little trouble in reaching the anonymous writer.  That always brings them around, as fish food brings the goldfish and delphinium catches the worms.[1]

     --Contemporary Review of The Capital Murder (1932), by James Z. Alner
Death devours Beatrice Sigurda
--the striking dust jacket design of
Dr. James Alner Tobey's The Capital Murder
Remaining unknown for 85 years was the true identity of the author of The Capital Murder, published in 1932 by the pseudonymous James Z. Alner.  Mystery fiction expert Allen J. Hubin suggested that James Zalner, a Lithuanian immigrant who resided for decades in Binghamton, New York, might have been the man behind The Capital Murder, but here I can confidently assert that Dr. James Alner Tobey was the gentleman in question.
            James Alner Tobey was born on July 15, 1894 in Quincy, Massachusetts to Rufus Tolman Tobey, a jeweler and amateur horticulturist descended from generations of Maine farmers (including James Shapleigh, a first lieutenant in the Maine militia for whom James Tobey had been named and who served as the basis for his 1915 admission into the Sons of the American Revolution), and Mary Ann Sherry, daughter of English immigrant William Alner Sherry, a fresco painter and partner in the prominent Boston interior design firm Wallburg & Sherry.  An energetic and industrious scholar, James Tobey was extensively educated at the Roxbury Latin School, the oldest school in continuous existence in North America; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he served as both the vice president of the chess club and a lieutenant in the Cadet Corps; George Washington University Law School; and American University.  During much of the First World War, he was employed with the Board of Health in West Orange, New Jersey.
            In 1918 Tobey, while on leave in Manhattan from mosquito eradication work in Charleston, South Carolina, wed Lena May, daughter of a farmer from Catskill, New York.  The couple, who would have two children together, resided in Washington, DC, before settling in the well-healed community of Rye, in Westchester County, New York, boyhood home of Founding Father John Jay.  After the Second World War, Dr. Tobey and his wife moved for a time to affluent Newtown, Connecticut, made tragically infamous in 2012 by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting; there in 1955 the ever-prolific Dr. Tobey published yet another book, The 250th Anniversary of Newtown, Connecticut, 1705-1955.  They would later return to Rye, where Dr. Tobey passed away at the age of 86 on November 23, 1980.
            Though still a young man in the 1920s, Tobey by that decade had established himself as a prominent public health official in the northeastern United States, serving with numerous public and private health organizations and publishing myriad books and articles on the subject of wellness and disease eradication.  Among his serious works are Riders of the Plagues: The Story of the Conquest of Disease (1930); the pioneering Cancer: What Everyone Should Know About It (1932), which includes a forward by H. L. Mencken, to whose magazine The American Mercury Tobey was a frequent contributor; and Public Health Law (1947), deemed by scholar Edward P. Richards the “last great public health law treatise.”[2]  His many health and medical articles spanned such topics as “Common Colds,” “Cancer Quacks,” “Facts about Milk,” “Heart Disease,” “White Bread Versus Brown,” “The Control of Human Sterility,” ”The Modern Concept of Leprosy,” “The Truth about Acidosis” and “The Army and Venereal Disease.”  Another piece provocatively asserted, “We Could Eat Acorns and Weeds.”  Clearly in many respects Dr. Tobey was a man ahead of his time.  
            Like other advanced Progressive thinkers of his day, Dr. Tobey in the 1920s and 1930s advocated, to quote from one of his monthly columns in the newsletter of the American Public Health Association, “the centralization of federal health work” into one vast Department of Health.  This vision finally would be realized in 1953, when the United States Congress and the administration of the newly-elected President Dwight Eisenhower created a cabinet level Department of Health, Education and Welfare, since 1979 the Department of Health and Human Services. 
            Around the time of the writing of The Capital Murder, Tobey forcefully challenged Ray Lyman Wilbur--secretary of the interior under Republican president Herbert Hoover and later a prominent exponent of “rugged individualism” and critic of Democratic president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal--when Wilber sanguinely pronounced, amidst the agonizing throes of the Great Depression, that the health of the country’s children would likely benefit from economic crisis, by inducing lax parents to tighten their belts and prioritize their children’s care.  “Anxiety, fear, discouragement and other effects of economic strain can and do lead to mental troubles, which may adversely influence the health and well-being of individuals,” countered Dr. Tobey, reasonably enough.[3]
            No doubt when the eminent Dr. Tobey in 1932 submitted the manuscript for The Capital Murder to the prestigious publishing firm Alfred A. Knopf, he believed he had a public reputation to protect and thus circumspectly sought to conceal his sole contribution to classic crime fiction in a cloak of protective anonymity.  (Tobey dedicated the book to his father, hiding his father’s name as well, behind the initials “R. T. T.”)  To be sure, Knopf’s stable of mystery writers at the time included the estimable hard-boiled icons Dashiell Hammett and Raoul Whitfield and the popular English writer J. S. Fletcher, viewed by many Americans at the time (however improbable this may seem to us today) as the most distinguished mystery writer from the British Isles since Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes; yet Knopf’s stable also harbored admittedly far lesser detective fiction lights, which likely emboldened Dr. Tobey to make his lone mystery writing venture.  Certainly Dr. Tobey would have been far from alone among highly educated and professionally accomplished persons at the time in having both the yen for reading detective fiction and the desire and the will to try his own hand at it; for this was the era when the detective story was considered “the normal recreation of noble minds,” in the words, we are told, of English barrister and author Philip Guedalla.

*****

W. Taylor Birch House at 3099 Q Street, Washington, D.C.
           
James Tobey’s sole published detective story, The Capital Murder, is set in--it should not surprise readers of this introduction to learn--Washington, DC, capital of the United States of America, where James Tobey resided in the 1920s, when he attended George Washington University Law School and American University and later served as administrative secretary of the National Health Council, a nonprofit association of health organizations founded in 1922.  The novel concerns the strange demise of a beautiful, enigmatic blonde, Beatrice Sigurda, late of the Argentine.  With two tiny puncture marks in her neck and a “look of inexplicable horror” on her face, she is found quite eerily dead while seated fully clothed on the “rich red divan” in the “luxurious sitting room” of her house on Q Street, located just a few blocks from the Serpentine Club in N Street,  where regularly gather five distinguished men—Commissioner Henry Selden, of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia; Lieutenant Runy O’Mara, of the United States Navy; Doctor Basil Ragland, an eminent psychiatrist; Lance Starr-Smith, a famous architect; and Trevor Stoke, an epidemiologist with the federal health service—to discuss murder and other fine arts.  Also in the company of the accomplished men, is “Jim,” an utter nonentity conveniently on hand to chronicle the tale as Trevor Stoke’s “Watson.” 
            Although all of these men play a role in the investigation and elucidation of the case, the star detective, as it were, is Trevor Stoke, of whom Jim worshipfully writes:

No serious outbreak of disease could occur anywhere in the country without Stoke, who would appear calmly on the scene sooner or later.  If the epidemic involved interstate affairs, the Government sent him in; if it was purely a local matter, the state health authorities invariably invited his services.  Typhoid, cholera, typhus, septic sore throat, and other maladies yielded to his uncanny ability to run down the true causes of outbreaks….He developed into the greatest of sanitary detectives.
            Stoke was no sallow scientist, but a virile individual.  His war record had brought him a medal or two for bravery under fire when he was supposed to be behind the lines in his laboratory, and his civilian career had shown him to be resourceful and courageous.  Although well built, he was of medium size and rather ordinary in appearance, neither handsome nor homely, but simply an alert, normal person who enjoyed life and worked hard for an indifferent salary.


            It likely will have occurred to readers that this is something of a fulsomely flattering self-portrait rendered by Dr. Tobey, but then if Dorothy L. Sayers could place herself into her Lord Peter Wimsey detective saga as the clever and alluring mystery novelist Harriet Vane, why should Dr. Tobey not have been able to play detective as Trevor Stoke?  And, truth be told, the fiendish murder of Beatrice Sigurda proves a most appropriate case for an epidemiologist sleuth.  As some readers of vintage mystery no doubt will discern, The Capital Murder slightly anticipates a celebrated slaying in a debut detective novel by a vastly better-known mystery writer who also debuted in the 1930s.
            In his only known detective novel Dr. Tobey evinces familiarity with detective fiction of the classic era, referencing not only the great Sherlock Holmes, of course, but Dupin, Lecoq, Max Carrados, Reggie Fortune, Peter Wimsey, Anthony Gethryn and Philo Vance.  Trevor Stoke’s self-effacing chronicler, Jim, is, to be sure, every bit as forgettable as Philo Vance’s wallflower amanuensis, Van; and it is amusing indeed when, at the climax of the novel, the cornered culprit snarls to Trevor Stoke, “Yes, I killed…Beatrice Sigurda…and now I’m going to kill you, you and that nincompoop toady of yours!”  Seldom has even a lowly Watson been afforded so little respect.
            Not amusing at all, though it is regrettably revealing of the times, is the noxious casual racial and ethnic prejudice expressed by several characters in the novel, including Jim himself (see my next post).  Yet readers who at the time enjoyed Dr. Tobey’s essay in fictional foul play, of which the “method used by the murderer of Beatrice Sigurda” was praised as “ingenious” by the New York Times Book Review, must have regretted that Jim never actually chronicled Trevor Stoke’s second case, concerning the matter of the US congressman’s corpse “found crammed in a locker of a leading golf club in the District of Columbia.”  Intrepid Trevor Stoke canceled his impending errand to battle a plague of hookworms in the Virgin Islands in order to solve this baffling case, which concerns yet another dastardly crime masterminded by a member of the most diabolically lethal species of them all: man!

Note: The Capital Murder was reprinted last year by Coachwhip.


[1] The Jimmy Hoffa of the Thirties, Judge Joseph Force Crater was a New York State Supreme Court Justice with suspected Tammany Hall connections who vanished on August 6, 1930.  He was declared legally dead nearly a decade later, on June 6, 1939.
[2] See “Historic Public Health Law Books” at http://biotech.law.lsu.edu/index.htm.
[3] “Child Health in the Depression,” New York Times, 1 December 1932.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Film Review: Crooked House (2017)

As Christie fans vigorously debate the merits of Sarah Phelps' scripted 2018 adaptations of the Queen of Crime's novels The ABC Murders (1936) and Ordeal by Innocence (1958), I'd like to remind people who may have missed it that there was another Christie film--one much more calculated, it seems to me, to please traditionalists/textualists--which appeared recently, in 2017: Crooked House, an adaptation of the 1949 novel that was co-scripted by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park and Downtown Abbey fame.

Most people who read this blog probably know the plot of Crooked House, which Christie once named as one of her favorites among her mysteries, along with another non-series novel, Ordeal by Innocence.  (Both of these novels have no appearance by Christie's sleuth Hercule Poirot, and this was a time when the author was rather down on Poirot.)  It certainly plays to Julian Fellowes' interests, being set at a huge country house among a wealthy family of eccentrics who are partly descended from country gentry.  In marked contrast with recent Phelps-scripted films, Crooked House stays mostly faithful to the book.


Wealthy 86-year-old Anglo-Greek business magnate Aristide Leonides (inspired by Aristotle Onassis?) dies from an insulin injection fatally laced with eserine (used in eye drops).  His lovely and level-headed granddaughter Sophia Leonides hires PI Charles Hayward, son of a late Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard, to investigate Aristides' death.  Sophia and Charles recently had a romantic relationship in Cairo, when Charles served with the Foreign Office, but it was soon broken off.  (We see much of this in flashbacks.)  However, the decidedly handsome pair still seem to carry torches for each other.

The denizens of the house are, besides Sophia:

And they all died together
in a little crooked house.
Brenda, Aristide's young American second wife, a farmer Las Vegas dancer who is pretty in pink

Aristides' sister-in-law (from his first, aristocratic marriage), Lady Edith de Haviland

Aristides' sons Philip, an unsuccessful writer, and Roger, who incompetently runs one of the family businesses

Philip's vain and posturing stage actress wife Magda and Roger's botanist wife Clemency

Philip's children, teenage Eustace and preteen Josephine, both of them rather, urm, precocious

Laurence Brown, tutor to Eustace, and Janet Rowe, Josephine's nanny.  Also let's not forget Chief Inspector Taverner from Scotland Yard.

Charles interviews the various eccentric family members and finds among them suspects galore, without seemingly making much progress in actually pinning the crime on one particular person. 

Much of the family itself prefers to believe that Aristide's killer was Brenda, who administered the insulin to her elderly husband on the fatal night.  Brenda, it seems, may have been having it off with Eustace's handsome young tutor, Laurence Brown--who is, by the by, something of a Red, and therefore naturally suspicious.

But other members of this weird family had motives too, which mostly center on daddy's money.  Aristide's snoopy granddaughter Josephine, who fancies herself a detection expert and eavesdrops on everyone in the house, making notes in a book, might help Charles, but she remains irksomely cryptic, preferring that he play Watson to her Holmes. 

Does she really know something, like a precursor of Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce, or is she simply a childish poseur?

Crooked House derives its title from the nursery rhyme "There Was a Crooked Man" (we all know how Christie adored nursery rhyme titles), which goes as follows:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile;

He bought a cooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.


Aristide was physically crooked but also very much a ruthless businessman so possibly was "crooked" in that sense too.  And he did indeed live in a crooked house, though it is far from little, being a monstrous fungoid growth of a English country cottage as only an emigre could imagine. 

The filmmakers used Minley Manor, a massive asymmetrical French Gothic mansion built by a Victorian banker in 1860, as their "Crooked House"; and while it's not exactly what Christie describes in the novel, it certainly makes an impressive setting, both in the exterior house and grounds and its often atmospherically ill-lit interiors. It's a good thing too, since most of the film takes place at the house.


But even odder than the house are most of its its inhabitants.  Stealing the show here are Gillian Anderson, who plays Magda Leonides, the narcissistic stage actress, along with the wonderful Glenn Close, who plays Lady Edith (though Close comes off, despite her bluff tweedy ways, as comparatively normal compared to the rest of the family) and 12-year-old Honor Kneafsey as nosy little Josephine, in a role that could have been written for Saoirse Ronan around the time she did the film Atonement.  Among the men, though it was nice to see Julian Sands (still looking good y'all!) as Magda's husband, I thought the honors were won by 18-year-old Preston Nyman as the snide polio-stricken Eustace. He puts some bite into that role.

I also liked Stefanie Martini as Sophia, though I thought Max Irons (son of Jeremy) was unfortunately rather on the bland side as Charles, a part which I believe was originally meant to go to Matthew Goode (who ended up in Ordeal by Innocence.)  Goode would have been better!  (Gooder?)  Oh, and the great veteran Terence Stamp as Chief Inspector Taverner was a wonderful bit of casting, though he was a bit past retirement age, I suspect.  But he was terrific nevertheless, and could have passed for ten years younger.

a couple that frequently finds itself at odds: Charles and Sophia
(Max Irons and Stefanie Martini)

The film relies heavily on interviews at the house (though there's a wonderfully bitchy dining table scene that would have done Gosford Park proud), and that may be a boor to some, but I think the colorful (if not campy) character portrayals help carry things off with panache.  The climax of the film adds excitement and even real emotional resonance, though perhaps it is somewhat incongruent with the often archly amusing tone of the film earlier. 

Crooked House offers a classic and quite artificial murder set-up: the strange family improbably all cooped up in this grand yet stultifying living arrangement, seemingly just waiting to get bumped off.  It's reminiscent of such splendid genre chestnuts as Ellery Queen's The Player on the Other Side (1963) and S. S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928). 

So the shift in tone may be more due to Christie herself than the filmmakers.  It's hard to make realistic, in-depth characters out of all of these chess pieces, delightfully quirky as they may be.  Still for a lot of us the mystery is the thing, and the book's solution, one of Christie's cleverest, is happily preserved in the film and well staged indeed.

Crooked House seems a nostalgic throwback to the "old days" of the Seventies film versions of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, with stars taking delicious turns in sumptuous, yet oh-so murderous, surroundings.  Devoted fans of the Queen of Crime needn't worry here about Christie getting all Phelpsed up by the filmmakers.

Who is in her sights? 
Lady Edith (Glenn Close) takes aim.

a perfect--perfectly awful--couple
Magda and Philip (Gillian Anderson and Julian Sands)

little Josephine Leonides (Honor Kneafsey)
just wants to dance--and detect

a study in pink
Chief Inspector Taverner (Terence Stamp) interrogates
the grieving young widow (Christina Hendricks)

Monday, February 4, 2019

Reissued: The Mysteries of Moray Dalton (Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir, 1881-1963)

In March Dean Street Press reissues one of my favorite "forgotten" mystery writers, or, perhaps I should simply say, one of my favorite crime writers, with no qualification: Moray Dalton, pen name of Katherine Mary Deville Dalton Renoir.  Dalton--this was her family surname--published the last of 29 crime novels in 1951, when she was nearly 70, and then seems to have been promptly forgotten (except by the canniest collectors), which is a great injustice to a crime writer of considerable quality.  Indeed to me she is one of the period's major British crime writers, literate and compulsively readable.  I find her one of those crime writers I invariably finish in two nights, maximum, of reading.  (How many times have you let a book drag on for days and days, never actually to finish it?)

Dalton published her first crime novel, The Kingsclere Mystery, in 1924, when she was 42, the same age as PD James when James published Cover Her Face (1962).  However, Dalton had published a well-received contemporary straight novel, Olive in Italy, fully 15 years earlier, in 1909 and a romantic adventure saga set in Renaissance Italy, The Sword of Love, in 1920.  Her mystery novels are rich in the gifts of the natural writer, combining strong characterizations and evocative settings and fleet narratives.  Some years before Dorothy L. Sayers boosted the idea of the novel of manners mystery Dalton already was writing crime novels of no little literary quality. Yet she did it with little of the fanfare received by Sayers and her sister Crime Queens Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, or even ECR Lorac and Anthony Gilbert.  I find it an odd and unfortunate oversight.

Dalton really hit her stride as a mystery writer with One by One they Disappeared (1929) and The Body in the Road (1930), which were, respectively, the debut mysteries of her major sleuth, Hugh Collier, a young and intelligent though woman-shy Scotland Yard inspector, and her minor sleuth, Hermann Gilde, a percipient and most persistent private enquiry agent who may remind readers of Agatha Christie's mysterious Mr. Goby, who first appeared around the same time.  Pleasingly, these two sleuths--Collier and Glide--inhabit the same fictional world and both appear in Dalton's excellent Christmas mystery, The Night of Fear, 1931.

By the 1930s, when Dalton was, like ECR Lorac, published by Sampson, Low, the author in my view was writing some of the best British mysteries in the business.  Yet while ECR Lorac (aka Carol Rivett) and Anthony Gilbert (aka Lucy Beatrice Malleson), accomplished "second-tier" crime writers of note, both moved to the Collins Crime Club and greater fame (including Detection Club membership) in the Thirties, Moray Dalton (aka Katherine Mary Dalton; I think Moray was a masculinizing of Mary) stayed with Sampson, Low, which seems to have hampered her career. 

To me Dalton's decades-long absence from the acknowledged crime fiction corpus is a great omission, for I would place her in the company of Lorac and Gilbert, if not higher.  However, unlike the other noted British Queens of Crime I have mentioned here, Dalton seems to have had sufficient independent means to maintain herself in comfort and so perhaps she did not so much feel the need to "push" her writing career.  A privileged English gentlewoman, she may have written to a great extent to please herself.

Katherine Mary Dalton was the only child of Canadian Joseph Dixon Dalton and Englishwoman Laura Back Dalton.  In her early years Laura Back Dalton resided at Valley House, a simply lovely Regency villa built around 1825 in Stratford St. Mary, Suffolk, in the heart of so-called "Constable Country" (so named for the fact that the great landscape artist John Constable painted many of his works in and around Stratford). 

I have a coffee table book called The Perfect English Country House and Valley House would fit right in as a smaller example; it's gorgeous (as is Stratford St. Mary itself).  Over a century after the domicile was erected, when Katherine Mary Dalton was writing perfect (or pretty close) English mysteries, the rascally butler at Valley House made off with the family silver and for good measure set fire to the house to cover his criminal tracks, but happily the elegant house survived.  The first two pictures immediately below date from 1909, before the fire and subsequent restoration.

bellow stairs at Valley House

Laura's father Alfred Back was a wealthy miller who with his brother Octavius, a corn merchant, operated a steam-powered six-story mill right across the River Stour from Valley House.  (In 1820, Constable, himself the son of a miller, executed a painting of fishers on the Stour which partly included the earlier, more modest incarnation of the Back family mill; it was later repainted by Constable under the title The Young Waltonians.)

The Young Waltonians (John Constable)
painted in the Back's backyard, if you will

Alfred Back died in 1860 and his widow moved with her daughters to Brondesbury Villas in Maida Vale, London, where in 1879 26-year-old Laura would wed a most eligible bachelor some fifteen years her senior: Joseph Dixon Dalton, an emigre from Canada. Joseph Dalton was the son of Wesleyan Methodists from northern England who had migrated to Canada in the 1830s, settling at London, Ontario.  Joseph's father, Henry, started a soap and candle factory there which after his death two decades later was continued, under the appellation Dalton Brothers, by Joseph and his siblings Joshua and Thomas.  Joseph's sister Hannah wed John Carling, a politician who came from a prominent family of Canadian brewers and was later knighted for his many public services.

Sir John Carling, husband of Hannah Dalton,
  withone of his daughters,
who would have been a first cousin
of Katherine Mary Dalton
Joseph Dalton seems, however, to have had quite an independent and adventurous streak, for he left the security of the family business to seek his fortune in a western gold rush, possibly the Cariboo Gold Rush in British Columbia, which was in full swing by 1865; and he struck it rich, as the saying goes.  He left Canada for London in the 1870s, a wealthy single man.

After Joseph's marriage to Laura the couple for a few years lived at Kenmore Lodge in Hammersmith, where Katherine was born, but by 1891 they had moved to Southampton, where they resided at 9 Orchard Place at "Lottery Hall."  This imposing Regency mansion was built as his private residence by 20-year-old Southampton baker John Osbaldiston after he won a L20,000 lottery in 1807 (about 1.5 million pounds, or 2 million dollars today). 

Hence the name "Lottery Hall." Today Osbaldiston is almost a legendary figure in Southampton, having managed to lose his once-in-a-lifetime fortune, passing away three decades later after having bought his golden ticket, with less than L100 pounds to his name.

prospector panning for gold during the 1860s
Cariboo Gold Rush in British Columbia
see King One Eye
Later such luminaries as the Earl of Craven, Earl Belmore, the 1st Earl Nelson (brother of the Admiral), Lord Bridport, American consul Joseph Rodney Croskey and the literary critic George Saintsbury lived at Lottery Hall. 

After the Daltons left the Hall around the turn of the century, it became a lodging house known as the the International Stewards' Club.  At the time of their deaths the Club was the stated residence of a couple of the many, many crewmen who later were to expire in the Titanic tragedy in 1912: Baptiste Antonio Alaria, 22, assistant waiter, and L. Zarrachi, 26, wine butler.  When Lottery Hall, a fascinating piece of history, was demolished for new construction in 1938, it most recently had served as the premises of the "Cosmopolitan Club."

Lottery Hall had a dining room, drawing room, morning room and "gentleman's room" on what we Americans call the first floor, four "best bedrooms," a drawing room and water closets on the second floor and three servants' rooms on the third floor.  There were two bays on the east elevation, as well as a walled garden, greenhouse, double coach house and stables. 

Here in the 1890s young Katherine Mary Dalton lived with her parents and a French governess.  By 1911, the family had moved to Perth Villa in the village of Merriott, Somerset, but during the Great War they lived on the southern coast again, in Littlehampton, in a much reduced semi-detached, suggesting the Dalton gold reserves by this time had rather diminished.  Joseph Dalton, then in his early 80s, died here in 1919, possibly a victim of the flu pandemic.

Orchard Place today

Katherine Mary Dalton, who continued to live with parents throughout the 1910s, published a spate of martial and memorial poems during the Great War, including "Edith Cavell," "Rupert Brooke," "Mort Homme" and "To Italy."  Like her two early mainstream novels, "To Italy," which was written after the deadly debacle at the Battle of Caporetto, evinces the author's passion for il bel paese.  Italy and Italians would figure prominently in her crime novels as well, though for the most part they are set in England, particularly in London and the southern England that was the author's native ground. One might say that Dalton the greatest Italy fancier in England this side of her esteemed contemporary E. M. Forster.

Barkerville, B.C., a boom town in the Cariboo Gold Rush

For the first four decades of her life, Dalton seems to have led rather an isolated existence, living with her parents, presumably privately educated, but there were hidden passions at play in her life, something which the author splendidly catches in her crime fiction.  After the war and her father's death, she seems to have become more independent.  1920 saw Dalton publishing The Sword of Love and closely corresponding with Leonard Huxley, son of Thomas and father of Aldous, who was her editor at The Cornhill Magazine, where she published short stories.  Huxley obligingly "plied my scalpel upon" (in his words) The Sword of Love.

nugget from the Cariboo Gold Rush
In 1921, Dalton, now nearly forty years old, wed Louis Jean Renoir at nearby Brighton.  The next year she bore her only child, a son who carried both the surnames Dalton and Renoir.  Louis Renoir seems to have vanished from Katherine's life after this, though the couple remained united in name. 

Dalton apparently resided from thenceforward with her mother Laura in nearby Worthing, until Laura's death in 1945.  Dalton herself passed away in 1963 at the age of 81, leaving an estate valued at nearly a million American dollars in modern worth--not her father's golden riches, to be sure, but not at all shabby.

I hope this introduction opens a little bit of window on the  life and writing of  a most unjustly neglected author whose own life until now had long been an enigma, even to the few collectors who knew about her fine work.  You can read more about her crime fiction in pieces I wrote for the first five Dean Street Press reprints, which are One by One They Disappeared, The Body in the Road, The Night of Fear, Death in the Cup and The Strange Case of Harriet Hall.  (I recommend the latter three especially.)  Reprinting Moray Dalton has been one of my most cherished literary goals for years, and I do hope all you classic mystery fans out there agree with me that this was a worthy endeavor.