“He stopped when he had nearly reached the gates and looked back at the house. From that distance it was beautiful, shining like a pearl in the pale wintry sunshine against the russet and umber background of the leafless woods. Since last night a house with a secret. If walls could speak, what would they have to tell?”
It’s almost Christmas and countless creatures are stirring in the country home of George Tunbridge. His guests have scattered throughout the dark house for a game of hide and seek. Though blind World War I veteran Hugh Darrow isn’t really in the mood to play, he’s willing to go along with the group. That is, until a mysterious dripping sound reveals that he is sharing his hiding place with a bloody corpse. The mood is anything but festive as Superintendent Hugh Collier investigates a Yuletide murder.
The Night of Fear remixes the traditional ingredients of the country house mystery, with pleasing results. At one time or another, there are four different detectives working on the case, which means that the investigation starts, stops, and circles back around on itself as Collier and his colleagues try to fill in gaps left by their predecessors. This lends the narrative a sense of unease, a real fear that justice may not be served. There is equal emphasis on character and cluing, including the complex female characters I’ve come to expect from Moray Dalton.
Unusually, the story opens with the murder being reported to local police, so that the reader goes into the situation knowing as little as Sergeant Lane and his Christmas visitor Collier. This does lead to a bit of a bottleneck at the beginning, as fourteen suspects are rapidly introduced and interviewed. Most of these suspects soon fall away, however, leaving a small central core of characters that we come to know quite well. The victim, Edgar Stallard, is never seen alive; all that is known about him by the end of the book is that he’s a true-crime author who loves the ladies and wears silk underwear.
Of course, the simplest explanation for the murder is that Hugh Darrow is guilty. Not only does he have the opportunity and the motive, a blind man would not be hindered by darkness. Even his old flame Ruth Clare has moments of doubt.
As the investigation deepens, however, Collier discovers that this Christmas party is not a happy one. Several of the ladies present were vying for Stallard’s affections, including the host’s wife Pearl, a former actress bored with country life. George Tunbridge’s cousin Sir Eustace is an influential man. Collier must be careful not to offend him, yet he cannot help wondering about Sir Eustace’s late-in-life engagement to the beautiful young Diana Storey. Diana’s grandmother, meanwhile, is afraid that the marriage won’t come off, condemning her to a life of second-rate lodging houses.
Presently, when the bell rang, she would go down to eat boiled mutton and turnips, with stewed prunes to follow. She would sit alone at the little table by the window. There would be the same mark of spilt gravy on the carpet. Afterwards, in the drawing room, coffee essence would be served in chipped cups to the guests before they dispersed for the evening, some to their rooms, some to the Pictures. She would play bridge. She had nothing more to look forward to now. Nothing to hope for but something to fear…
“After all I have done for her,” she thought. “Oh, God! All my life I have been hampered by fools.”
Dalton pulls off the feat of making readers sympathize with a woman who is essentially trying to sell her granddaughter. There are obvious parallels to Ruth Clare’s situation, as her own mother sabotaged her romance with Hugh Darrow so that Ruth could be married off to a wealthy man. Now a rich widow, Ruth is determined to have a second chance at love no matter what she has to do to secure it.
This includes hiring private investigator Hermann Glide. His outward appearance is unimpressive; the elderly Glide has “a lamentably narrow chest and a wizened little face, pinched with cold and lit by a pair of brilliant and melancholy brown eyes. He looked, Ruth thought, exactly like a sick monkey.” His past is slightly shady. But just as Glide’s hands are always at work kneading modeling clay, his busy mind never stops moving, and his client may not appreciate the end result.
The Night of Fear’s greatest asset is its unusual structure, which keeps the story moving while allowing insights into various detectives and suspects. Starting with the murder is a gamble that pays off; usually the time before the murder is committed allows the reader to get to know the characters and their relationships, but having this information emerge organically during the course of the investigation keeps the interviews interesting. Like Collier and Glide, the reader must weigh what the characters are saying with our own observations, without the benefit of prior knowledge. The story does get bogged down by trial sequences in the second half, but there are enough twists toward the end to liven things up again.
The Night of Fear is a refreshing take on the classic country-house mystery. Its characters at first appear to be stock figures (the country squire, the bumbling constable, the sexy chauffeur) but soon take on depths that allow them to transcend these stereotypes, allowing for real emotional involvement in their plights. Though these careful characterizations help the surprise ending come off, more could have been done in this area without spoiling the final twist. Even so, however, The Night of Fear is a satisfying and unusual golden-age mystery.
Dalton’s writing style, moving from character to character, giving insights without giving the game away, is very satisfying, and this is another good book from the author. I gather that there is more Dalton to come from Dean Street Press and this is something that all crime fiction fans should look forward to.
All in all, I found The Night of Fear to be a more accomplished detective novel than The Strange Case of Harriet Hall and one of the better Christmas-themed country house mysteries from the Golden Age. Highly recommended for those darker, longer days of December.
The villain is rather easy to spot; Dalton doesn’t distribute enough suspicion among the suspects. (Some good character-drawing in Ch. XV focused my attention.) A clever additional twist at the end took me by surprise; it’s effective but not, I think, sufficiently clued.
The Night of Fear is available in paperback and ebook formats from Dean Street Press.