Monday, November 18, 2019

Murd'rous Queer Witchery It Be! The Condamine Case (1947), by Moray Dalton

'Tes a queer place seemingly....Full of ghostesses, what with beasts coming down from the church roof and her that walks up to Great Baring and her hair blowing like smoke in the gale. T'esn't a place to be out alone at night."  Constable Puddock slowed down and sounded his horn as they came out into the road, and added rather hastily, "'Tes only old tales and ignorance."

"The Condamines have a name for being queer...."
--The Condamine Case (1947), by Moray Dalton

In Moray Dalton's Inspector Hugh Collier saga there came, after The Art School Murders in 1943, The Longbridge Murders in 1945.  Then two years after that there came The Condamine Case, followed the next year by The Case of the Dark Stranger in 1948. 

I'm hoping all of these titles, which I personally enjoyed immensely, will be reprinted next year, but in the early batch there will be the non-series The Case of Alan Copeland (1937), reviewed here, The Art School Murders, reviewed here, and The Condamine Case, reviewed in this post, as well as two earlier Dalton Hugh Collier titles, to be reviewed, I hope, later this month.

In my review of The Case of Alan Copeland, I wrote about how darkly portrayed the English village was, with a monstrous regiment of women who might almost be seen as "witches" of a sort, while in my review of The Art School Murders, I noted how the author mentioned American films and and Hollywood stars like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Robert Taylor.  Well, in The Condamine Case we have actual witches, plus an English film crew making a movie involving witchcraft, at a remote English village, Little Baring in Somerset, apparently located somewhere in the vicinity of the actual village of Wookey, a name I had not, until reading this book, encountered outside of a Star Wars film.  What fan of classic English mystery would want to miss this?

In London rising whiz kid director Stephen Latimer (he's been compared to no less than and Orson Wells and Rene Clair, the latter of whom had recently directed the films I Married a Witch and And Then There Were None) learns of a gentry family in Somerset by the name of Condamine who has a history of witchcraft and haunting.  He decides this would make an excellent subject for his next film, so over he goes to the Condamine ancestral manor with his self-effacing assistant, Welshman Evan Hughes, the focal character of the novel, to scout out the location. 

Leigh Court, Somerset

In Somerset Stephen and Evan stay at the Ionic columned mansion of the Condamines: middle-aged husband George, who is desperately anxious that the film be made, and his beautiful, jaded younger wife of two years, Ida, who acts indifferent to the whole thing.  Also integral members of the household are George's beloved old spaniel Punch and his ill-used young poor relation Lucy Arden, who serves as Ida's beleaguered dogsbody.

Matthew Hopkins
(c. 1620-1647)
infamous hunter of witches
and mass murderer
According to legend, a seventeenth-century ancestor of George's kept a beautiful but humbly-born mistress in the village when he married an heiress from London, and the jealous and vindictive new wife saw to it that the mistress and her mother were accused of witchcraft and drowned (via the barbaric witch-revealing practice known as "dunking").  Unfortunately for the wife, the dead mistress returned from the dead as a ghost and haunted the wife unto her death.  All this supernatural legend stuff is really well done by the author, reminding me of those masters of spooky shudders John Dickson Carr and Marjorie Bowen (high praise indeed). 

Stephen Latimer wants to spice things up yet more, however, by adding to the script the presence of notorious English witch-finder, aka demented mass murderer, Matthew Hopkins, although Evan Hughes informs him that Hopkins never actually came near these parts.  What English witchcraft film wouldn't have Matthew Hopkins, right?

Dalton knew southern England, her native ground, extremely well and there is a lot of emphasis in the novel on the natural and man made environment, which is based on real places in Somerset, like Glastonbury Tor and the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Croscombe

Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Croscombe
Standing before the Anglican Church at Little Baring while scouting locations for the film, which is located "on high ground, with a field, probably the glebe, between it and the nearest cottages, where the grass grew long and rank among the sparse headstones," Evan is impressed by bell tower's height as well as

the extraordinary and menacing effect produced by the multitude of carved stone gargoyles thrusting forward from the roof like the garrison of a fortress preparing to repel all comers....horrid heads, grimacing, open-mouthed: giant lizards, pig snouts, figures from a nightmare, with scaly shoulders and outstretched sinewy necks and sharp talons gripping the eaves.

The eccentric bachelor rector of this memorable church, Sebastian Mallory, is another important figure in the novel's present day plot, as are, by the by, George Condamine's bluntly garrulous widowed sister-in-law, Julia Condamine, and her indolent young adult son, Oswald ("Ozzie"), both of whom, since George married Ida, have been banished from the manor to a cottage (a picturesque one, to be sure).

Church of St. Mary the Virgin
Stephen and Evan leave Little Baring to return to London, but return with their actors and film crew a few months later, only to learn that Death has unexpectedly come to Little Baring.  Soon there arrives upon the scene as well "a man of about fifty, with a slim, active-looking figure, hands tanned by the sun but noticeably well-kept, a lean brown face with shrewd grey eyes and a humorous mouth."  Readers of the series will know who this is.

It's Inspector Hugh Collier of the Yard, of course, in the crime detection game for nearly two decades now.  With him is his phlegmatic assistant of many years, Sergeant Duffield.  Together they face a case that eventually will concern not one murder, but two. Whodunit?  Someone within the narrow Condamine circle in Little Baring?  Or someone farther afield, perhaps?  Is witchcraft really dead in Little Baring?  Test you mettle against Inspector Collier!

Dalton mentions, in a not incidental way, a Condamine ancestor who came from Suffolk, recalling the author's own mother, who was born at Valley House at the village of Stratford St. Mary, and there's also a cute aside about contemporary American crime fiction of the Forties, which seems to be the lamentable Ozzie Condamine's favorite reading:

The sofa springs creaked under his weight as he settled himself more comfortably to follow the hair-raising escapes of a private dick who, on a diet of hamburgers and alcohol, made love to every woman he met while he bluffed his way though the jungle of American Big Business.

A pretty keen assessment there!  It's always fun to read the observations of classic British crime writers on the heady new stuff that getting distilled in the U. S. of A.

Glastonbury Tor, Somerset

This is another fine Moray Dalton detective novel, with true detection as well as interesting characters and compelling atmosphere.  The film crew involvement adds a new wrinkle (I was reminded of John and Emery Bonett's 1951 detective novel A Banner for Pegasus) and the supernatural legend aspect is superb.  Parts of the book felt ahead of its time, like something out of a Sixties Ruth Rendell novel.  Highly recommended--but watch out for raven-tressed women that walk by night!


  1. Congratulations, Curt! You've made me more than just a little curious about these forthcoming Dalton mysteries. They sound much more intriguing than the first five titles DSP reprinted this year.

    1. This one made me think of you! Another one brings in a locked room at the end, but, while it's all perfectly reasonable, you may be disappointed with the windup. But it's a pretty pleasingly outre tale involving the slain Russian empresses' lost jewels. There's almost enough plot for a Victorian sensation novel.

      Art School Murders and Condamine Case are tight detection jobs.

  2. I wonder if Noel Coward read this before he wrote "Blithe Spirit"? The play was first performed in 1941, and the main male character is Charles Condomine.

    1. It does seem like an unusual name, doesn't it? I had seen the film version of Blythe Spirit, but didn't recall that.

  3. Now this is one I'm sure to enjoy! Looking forward to its release.

    I'm reading one of Charles Ashton's mysteries again and it's also about a film company, practically a primer in how to make a talking picture (circa 1936). He has the best and simplest explanation of what a script girl actually did (she's an important minor charcter) back then as well as learning all about the importance of the electricians and lighting guys who rarely ever get talked about in any novel about moviemaking, not even in movies about movie making. Ashton knew the world well being a former screen actor himself. A nifty little mystery, one of the best mysteries I've read set in a movie studio.