Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Bumped off in the Blackout: The Art School Murders (1943), by Moray Dalton

A blackout during war, or in preparation for an expected war, is the practice of collectively minimizing outdoor light....to prevent crews of enemy aircraft from being able to identify their targets by sight....
--"Blackout," Wikipedia

The association between the blackout and the threat of sexual violence altered the way in which women used blacked out and poorly lit spaces....The effect of the perception of security and the associated moral response is seen in the heavy sentences handed down to offenders who were believed to have exploited the blackout for criminal gain.  That was also seen in the exploitation of the blackout for sexual purposes.  While the evidence for increased sexual violence as a result of the blackout is mostly anecdotal, there was a clear perception of it increasing....
--The Blackout in Britain and Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), Marc Wiggam

London's ghastly series of blackout murders, as they came to be called, began--and fortunately ended--in the drear, chill week of Feb. 9, 1942.  The killings, four of them, launched the most dreadful reign of terror, as well as the greatest manhunt, since the Jack the Ripper days more than half a century before.
--"Blackout Killings of London Women Terrorized City," Peter Levins, Knoxville Journal, August 2, 1942

"I'm worried....This damned blackout.  I'm afraid of what may happen in the dark."

--Inspector Hugh Collier in The Art School Murders (1943), by Moray Dalton

If the malevolent malefactor who savagely slew five women in London in 1888--forever known to his public, if you will, as "Jack the Ripper"--has ever conversed in Hell with Gordon Frederick Cummins, executed for the monstrous murders of four women that took place in wartime London in February 1942, perhaps they have discussed the capriciousness of fame (or more accurately notoriety), which made the one depraved maniac eternally famous while allowing the other quickly to become largely forgotten.

Part of the reason for this disparity in renown is the fact that the Ripper was never caught.  Indeed his (?) identity remains unknown, fueling endless speculation and theories in books, articles and internet postings. 

Conversely, Gordon Cummins was quickly apprehended by police and executed for his terrible killings.  The jury deliberated for only thirty-five minutes before finding him guilty as charged, and he was hanged on June 25, only two months after his trial. 

Of course the fact that Britain was fighting a war for survival around the world that deadly week when Gordon Cummins violently prowled in London naturally had something to do with it too.  What were the deaths of four obscure London women--horrific as those deaths had been--compared to the manifold calamities--the mayhem and mass slaughter--going on around the world?

better safe than sorry
two women (one in uniform) putting up a blackout curtain
to shut out the dangers that lurked outdoors
Nevertheless, the killings made a stir.  There was much talk about how the blackout had made Londoners, particularly women, less safe by making it easier for villains to commit heinous crimes under cover of the night.  Ill deeds done in darkness, don't you know. 

Gordon Cummins was only caught because he left his registered gas mask behind after fleeing from the scene of an interrupted attack he had made on a woman.  As a newspaper put it, Cummins' target "might have been killed but for the sudden appearance of a small boy with a flashlight."

Whatever its deleterious impact on society, the blackout certainly should have been a boon to mystery writers.  And, sure enough, in 1940 there came, for example, The Black Out Murders, from the hand of the ever-opportunistic crime writer Leonard Gribble, who after the war also would give readers Atomic Murder (1947). 

Then there was J. Russell Warren's Gas-Mask Murder from 1939, which when it was published in the United States the next year was re-titled, yes, Murder in the Blackout.  (Expect to see Warren back in print next year.)  The blackout also appeared in Gladys Mitchell's Brazen Tongue, likewise published in 1940.

dreamy murderer Gordon Cummins,
who mutilated his murder victims
with a jagged can opener
Classic genteel detection, either in print or on film, could never encompass the bloody horror of the "Blackout Ripper," who it was reported, had sexually mutilated some of his victims with a can opener, but in 1943, there appeared a dullish "Poverty Row" (i.e., cheapie) American film, scripted by Curt Siodmak, called London Blackout Murders,  which specifically references Jack the Ripper, as well as a fine novel by mystery author Moray Dalton, the title of which--The Art School Murders--gave no hint of its wartime setting, though in fact it was, I believe, the author's only mystery actually published during the war.

Although erroneously listed as a non-series mystery, The Art School Murders is in fact an Inspector Hugh Collier story--by my reckoning the tenth of fifteen Collier tales.

The Art School Murders, which will be one of the Moray Daltons reprinted next year by Dean Street Press, is an excellent tale,  representative of the author's more stripped down postwar, proto police procedural style.  Certainly it's reminiscent of works by the four major Crime Queens (Christie, Sayers, Marsh and Allingham), with its overall genteel setting and its keen-eyed social observation; yet it has a bit of a harder edge, I think, than much of their work, lacking in the little snobberies and petty condescension often associated with the Crime Queens (particularly to my mind Ngaio Marsh, as readers of this blog will know).

Yet Dalton's Hugh Collier, while a more believable cop than Marsh's oh-so-impossibly-exquisite Roderick Alleyn, is cut as well from genteel (though not aristocratic) cloth, being one of those attractive, kindly, charming and gentlemanly police detectives whom we associate with the British Crime Queens.  (He especially reminds me of ECR Lorac's Inspector Macdonald.)  One of the lines in the book which I loved explains of Collier that "Crude manners always put him on his mettle." So typical of a Golden Age fictional sleuth, as imagined by the Crime Queens!

And so different from today's depressing viral American cop videos, where every other word that seemingly gets uttered by one of our men in blue begins with an "F" and ends with a "K" or "G"!

It is a pleasure to accompany Hugh Collier as he politely but persistently pursues and finally brings to justice a particularly nasty killer, who over the course of the story murders three women in the London suburbs, two of them for an exceedingly callous reason.

Dalton gets right down to business, producing her first dead body on page four.  Scotland Yard, as embodied by Hugh Collier, enters ten pages later.  The main setting of the novel is an art school founded by a highly regarded though hugely egocentric native Italian portrait painter, Aldo Morosini.  The initial murder victim is Althea Greville, a luscious though somewhat long in the tooth blonde (she's over forty), who until her stabbing death served as a life model at the school.  Two more murder victims follow (one of them a female student at the school, who is stabbed to death at a cinema). Finally, however, Collier selects the right piece in the puzzle and identifies the culprit.

I use the term puzzle piece advisedly because four-fifths of the way through the novel the author herself writes this of Collier's thought process:

As he pondered his notes on the case he had a worrying feeling that he had missed something, that he had picked up the false clues and left the one that really mattered trailing.  Was there anything to be gained by turning back?  In all these statements taken from the students at the school, the staff of the cinema, was there one revealing sentence, one operative word that had been passed over, unnoticed at the time?

Yes, dear reader, there was!  Can you find it before Collier?

Collier pursues a fairly limited number of suspects, in contrast with those Golden Age country house mysteries where absurdly there are about a dozen guests (or more) staying for the weekend (though there's only one bathroom--see the detective's "rough sketch"), all of whom had some motivation to have bludgeoned the baronet at midnight in his study.  However, Dalton still manages to put quite a bit of suspense into the telling.

I also liked how Dalton was able to present her lower, middle and upper class characters alike as real human beings, something I recently discerned that Agatha Christie had failed to do in Murder in Easy (1939), where her lower class characters seem strictly stock. 

The mother of the young murdered boy in Christie's novel barely misses him because she has so many other children, don't you know.  Indeed, Christie explains that the woman derives "melancholy enjoyment" from detailing the deaths of her offspring.  It's an attitude that fosters on the part of readers a state of emotional detachment, placing the focus of the story exclusively on the puzzle rather than on any sort of sympathetic emotional connection with the characters.

In The Art School Murders, however, it's the frostily genteel aunt who hardly misses her murdered niece, in contrast with the old family servant, Emma, who feels the young woman's absence keenly.  We, the readers, are invited by the author to empathize.

woman (theater usherette?)
checking the wartime blackout
Aside from the blackout bits in Dalton's novel, there are some other nice details for readers of vintage mystery who enjoy social history as well as murder puzzles, primarily concerning the influence of American culture on wartime Britain, a subject which drew the dismayed interest of George Orwell, among other prominent English commentators of the day.

The murdered art student is a great fan of American films, particularly comparative "oldies" starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  "She's got what they call a pash on that Fred Astaire," explains the maid Emma.  "I heard her humming one of the tunes.  She's got a record of it.  'The Way You Look Tonight.'

The young woman's murder discordantly occurs at a showing of the classic 1936 Fred and Ginger film Swing Time.  Meanwhile Collier's assistant, burly Sergeant Duffield, "goes regularly to the pictures with his wife on his evenings off duty" and is "gradually acquiring a transatlantic vocabulary."  Collier, we learn to our amusement, looks "forward hopefully to the time when his sergeant would refer to his colleagues as bulls."

In 1930 and 1931 three of Moray Dalton's crime novels had been published in the United States, yet over the next two decades, the remainder of her writing career, none were.  Dalton stopped writing, as far as we know, in 1951, and she was soon forgotten, though the discerning Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor praised her highly in their Catalogue of Crime

Was Dalton disappointed with the relative lack of success of her books?  I don't know, but she certainly had every right to be, for in my estimation she produced (I'll say it again) some of the finest British crime fiction of mid century.  Sometimes writers never receive their dues in their lifetimes (just think of the fantastically egregious cases of Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson), but occasionally time redresses the balance.  I hope that such happens in the strange case of the proverbially "unjustly neglected" Moray Dalton.

In Dreams: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936)


  1. Sounds like an interesting title. Is this going to be reprinted?

    1. Oh, yes, I mention in the piece that it's one to be reprinted by DSP next year.

  2. Have you read Max Allan Collins' fictionalized account of the "Blackout Killer?" Agatha Christie is the detective! It's part of his "mystery writer investigates a disaster" series which includes The Titanic Murders, The Lusitania Murders, The War of the Worlds Murders, etc. At one of the past Bouchersons when I had him sign my small (but incomplete) collection of that series he told me that The Blackout Murders was his favorite of the bunch. It was my favorite too. not just because Christie is the detective.

    I've read three books with murders committed during the London Blackout, one by E.C.R. Lorac and two by Anthony Gilbert. Malleson (Gilbert) is the most interesting and instructive mystery writer who wrote about civilian murders committed during the war. I learn more about social history of WW2 from her books than anywhere else, including non-fiction.

  3. Oops, the Max Allan Collins book is called The London Blitz Murders. Very much recommended.

    1. Yes, Anthony Gilbert has some good wartime home front books, doesn't she?

  4. When you have time (hah!)to pen a second blog, you can name it "A Small Boy With a Flashlight." Fascinating story and, as usual, beautifully researched, written and illustrated. Thank you.

    1. Weren't those blackout poster pics something? Glad you enjoyed the piece.