Moray Dalton’s The Mystery of the Kneeling Woman is set in a small village surrounded by wet, wintry and rather sinister woods. Cottages are “picturesque but insanitary” (earth closet in the garden). A small boy finds a dying man while searching for conkers. Meanwhile someone has brained a local recluse, Mr Killick. Enter Hugh Collier from the Yard to battle with the Chief Constable and the extremely miffed local cop Inspector Brett. Collier and his sidekick, the solid Duffield, settle in to the local hotel and eat buttered crumpets.
The plot thickens. We are given a lot of information in the first chapter that the cops don’t discover until practically the last. There’s a saintly, ailing white-haired clergyman. There are two sons, killed in WWI, who haunt their parents and the narrative. The Kneeling Woman turns out to be a memorial brass in an abandoned church – an envelope was hidden behind it, that's now gone.
Collier befriends the boy, Toby, and his young mother, Sandra. A couple of loathsome bullies from Toby’s school, and their heartless rich mother, Lady Webber (“She was gracious merely to serve her own ends”), turn up almost out of the blue but rapidly eat the wrong chocolates.
Killick formerly worked for the May Morning cosmetics company, and Collier interviews the local chemist: “We’ve got the May Morning compacts and beauty sets... perfumes: daisy, buttercup, clover, and meadow sweet in the two shilling and three and sixpenny sizes.” He later visits the factory and we get a brief glance at the mainly female staff (“Most of our workers are young girls who come here when they leave school and leave us to get married”), but Dalton misses a trick – we don’t get to meet any of them or find out how the stuff is made.
Some attitudes are “of their time” – this is partly why I read 90-year-old mysteries: Sandra is “modern enough to have read a good deal about repressions and complexes”. And Lady Webber opines about Toby: “I suppose his people are all right or he wouldn’t be at that school.” It must be she who says: “Dear me, you sound as if you’d been reading that awful man Freud or something.” (Dalton was 42 when she started writing mysteries, and may have thought psychoanalysis a silly fad.)
“Lady Webber’s attitude to life was summed up in one sentence. ‘It’s no use being morbid.’”
Dalton also evokes a world of fire buckets, Thermoses, nursing homes, shrubberies, bun shops and Cadena cafés. Lady Webber wears “a white sports suit of superlative cut. Her black gloves and a black velvet beret clinging precariously to one side of her golden head indicated that she was in mourning” – also that the date is circa 1935. (This is for Clothes in Books.)
I like Dalton’s mix of mystery, thriller and the bizarre. And she writes very well: “He glanced towards the parrot who was moving with ineffable dignity and in a crab-like manner along his perch and stopping at intervals to bow to an imaginary audience.” Sandra looks into the rich woman’s car and has a “confused impression of carnations in a silver vase, fur rugs, fur coats, and smiles that were somehow not reassuring”.
I guessed the culprit, something I don’t often do. There is a trial, briskly carried out, followed by a twist. Back in their comfortable digs, Collier and Duffield unwind. Collier laments the waste of life in the Great War, and the two lost boys.
Duffield relit his pipe. “Are you a pacifist, Inspector? I’ve sometimes wondered from the things you say — ” “I’ve a right to be, haven’t I, after three years of hell? You were in it, too. What do you say?” “Nothing. What’s the good? Once I started I might not be able to stop.”
With horrible prescience Collier hopes that no such conflict will blight Toby’s life. They talk about something called “the Peace Ballot”.
“Wouldn’t God stop it? But God had given men free will,” muses Dalton.
Hardly dated and irrelevant. This book is followed by one equally bizarre, Death in the Dark, featuring professional acrobats and a failing private zoo.