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.

8 comments:

  1. I had never heard of her, but you have definitely got me longing to try one of these books!

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    1. I do hope you like her! I'm hoping all her books are brought back. I really do enjoy them.

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  2. Wow! Though I know this writer and some of the titles I never knew "he" was really a she. Nor have I ever heard you talk of her nor have I ever read anything so enthusiastic from you in years. Eager to try one of her books now.

    I had multiple copies of The Body in the Road over the years but never read it. I also definitely remember owning a copy of One By One They Disappeared ages ago and I think I started it, but never finished it. Can't remember the reason. I may even still have it in a box somewhere. Will have to go looking this weekend. Rupert sends me all those digital copies, but I just can't read a book on a device. Spend way too much time on computers as it is.

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    1. John, those two titles you mention both have some thriller elements but I like them both, particularly Body. But my favorite of the five are the latter three. I do hope you like them, I've been trying to track down all her books for years and managed to find about two-thirds. She's hard to find, because most of her books were never published in the US and she is sought by a small group of collectors.

      I hope people like her. All I can day is she is a writer I very much enjoy. So if people don't like her I'll be disappointed, I'll admit!

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  3. They've got Kindle versions of these books on Amazon that can be 'pre-ordered'for arrival to Kindle in March. $1.99 each. Thank you for letting us know about all these authors.

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    1. I'm glad to be of service. I do hope you enjoy them as I do.

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  4. The Dean Street e-versions of her books are finally available in North America, and I have just finished The Night of Fear. It's a corker! I was worried at first because the prose seemed not just undistinguished but downright awkward. But as I progressed I realized that this is an aspect of her concise style, which begins to work especially well as the tension of the story increases. Characterization emerges subtly as the book unfolds, and there are some wonderful page-turning sections, especially the trial scenes and the episode of the car and the lake. I also liked how the author did not tie up every loose end. Most intriguing though was how the detective role is passed from person to person. A fresh GAD voice I had never heard of before. I will certainly plan to read Dalton's other titles. Thanks for your part in bringing Moray Dalton back, Curtis.

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    1. I’m so glad to see you liked it. I know what l like, to be sure, and I’ve always looked forward to reading a new Dalton. She does seem to me an original, interesting voice in GA mystery. I’ve been plotting her return for years! ;)

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