“It’s murder,” said the sergeant. “Murder. And you’ve started the machinery whose wheels will only cease running when the culprit has been brought to justice. You’ve been a bit slow, if you’ll excuse my saying so, to see all the implications, but the fact remains that you set the law in motion, Mr. Dene. You put the penny in the slot, in a manner of speaking. It’ll be something for you to remember.”
As far as she knows, Amy Steer is alone in the world, struggling to earn her own living in London. It seems like a miracle when she is offered a home by her previously unknown aunt, Harriet Hall. But why does the nice young man she meets on the train abandon Amy after learning who her aunt is? Why isn’t she met at the station? And why is there no sign of Mrs. Hall when Amy arrives at her lonely cottage? When Harriet Hall’s corpse turns up at the bottom of a well, Amy learns that her aunt was hiding some deadly secrets.
The Strange Case of Harriet Hall is a pleasing countryside mystery with a few shocking twists along the way. One of these is so unexpected that I wish it could have been more fully explored, but the fact that it’s included at all is unusual for the time period. As the story proceeds, it becomes clear that Dalton is less interested in the detective story than in the human dramas underlying it. The solution to the mystery is underwhelming, but the ending nonetheless packs an emotional punch due to the well-developed relationships between the characters.
Following her aunt’s death, Amy finds that Mrs. Hall was living free of charge in a cottage belonging to her old friend Mrs. Dene. The Denes purchased the Dower House from impoverished local gentry, and oldest daughter Lavvy has just become engaged to Sir Miles Lennor, one of the former owners. However, the Lennors are far from accepting the Denes as equals. The engagement is also threatened by the constant presence of the “vulgar” Harriet Hall, with her heavy makeup and long earrings clacking. As it turns out, though, the only thing worse than a living Harriet is a dead one.
“You can’t blame Lavvy, Mother, because somebody she knows has been murdered,” said the young man irritably. “It’s a thing that might happen to anyone.”
“It has never happened to me,” said Lady Lennor.
The young man Amy met on the train turns out to be Tony Dene. Despite fleeing their compartment at the thought of Mrs. Hall pushing her niece onto him, he actually likes Amy very much and tries to help her. Unfortunately for him, no one seems to have a better motive for getting rid of Harriet Hall than the Dene family.
As the murder investigation meanders gently along, led by empathetic Scotland Yard Inspector Hugh Collier, Dalton’s real focus is the portrayal of family relationships and the social life of the town. The Lennors and the ordinary villagers may not mingle, but they know each other’s position. Where conflicts arise is through upwardly mobile characters like the Denes. They aspire to an upper-class lifestyle without really understanding what that role involves, especially in a small village. Tony and his sister Mollie start a riot by attending a Harold Lloyd film during the funeral of a murder victim. The working-class villagers are outraged by the optics of their employers blowing off the funeral to watch a comedy film. It never occurred to the Denes that they should have sent a representative, or at least a wreath, to the funeral. The Lennors would have known. They wouldn’t have cared any more than the Denes, but they would have known to keep up appearances.
At the heart of the story is a portrait of two mothers and two children: Mary and Lavvy Dene and Lady and Sir Miles Lennor. The coldly exquisite Lavvy is her mother’s favorite child, a fact that is quite clear to her two siblings Tony and Mollie. Mrs. Dene bought the Dower House for one reason—to provide “a perfect frame” for her beautiful daughter. Too late, she realizes that she’s also created a perfect frame for murder. While Mrs. Dene is discouraged by how little Lavvy seems to need her, Lady Lennor has the opposite problem. Her son Miles is easily led…maybe a little too much. Even a mother has to wonder, in the wake of a murder. Unless, of course, she’s the one who committed it.
Lady Lennor glanced up from her sole au gratin with a shade of uneasiness. The young man’s submission was almost too complete. It gave her nothing to work upon. He should, she felt, have offered some opposition which would have enabled her to tell her friends that she had had a great deal of trouble with Miles—the poor boy was so chivalrous. Though she would not admit it, even to herself, she was a little puzzled by his stolid compliance.
The Strange Case of Harriet Hall unfolds in the best golden age mystery tradition, with everyone a plausible suspect. Unfortunately, the conclusion is more of a thriller ending than a classic detective-story solution. The book’s true end, however, is a beautifully observed epilogue that surveys the wreckage left behind by murder.
There is some exceptional character work here, with a nice set of suspects, but I did find the revelation of the murderer to be a little underwhelming.
Still, a strong classic mystery novel with a strong emotional core, with much to recommend it.
It is an engrossing read: it contains many of the standard features of a crime book of the time, but has depth, and some intriguing characters. And one excellent surprise…
All of that being said, the peculiar characteristics of The Strange Case of Harriet Hall unquestionably makes it standout in the crowd of 1930s mysteries, however, readers should approach the book as a precursor of the modern crime novel of P.D. James instead of the Golden Age mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers. So, while the plot didn’t quite measure up to my expectations, I still found it to be an interesting read and will return to Dalton when DSP publishes the rest.
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.
The Strange Case of Harriet Hall is available in paperback and ebook formats from Dean Street Press, who kindly provided a review copy of this title.