Originally published 1947
Inspector Collier #12
Preceded by The Longbridge Murders
Followed by The Case of the Dark Stranger
In London, rising young movie director Stephen Latimer learns of a gentrified family in Somerset with an old history of witchcraft and haunting. Scenting an excellent subject for his next film, he visits their ancestral manor.
Pleased with his discoveries, Stephen returns to London, planning to spice up the family legend still further for the film. But he is soon to learn that after his departure Death came to Little Baring.
Inspector Hugh Collier of the Yard arrives on the scene, facing a case that concerns not one murder, but two. Whodunit? Someone within the narrow Condamine circle in Little Baring? Or someone farther afield? And is witchcraft really dead in Little Baring?
Having enjoyed myself so much reading Dalton’s The Art School Murders last month I have been keen to explore more of her work. Rather than trying to go through these in a particular order I decided to go for the book that had the most elements that grabbed me. This one won out with its mix of a story of an ancient witchcraft trial, ghosts and the workings of the film industry.
Stephen Latimer is a young British director who has had great success with his first two projects and is now set to develop a third. He receives a proposal to make a film based on historical events that took place in a village in Somerset where a woman conspired to have a rival accused of witchcraft and drowned only to find herself haunted by her.
Latimer travels down to Somerset with his assistant director Evan to research the story and determine how they would film it. They meet with Mr. Condamine and his wife to learn more about the legend and to scout out locations. Things seem to be going well until Condamine suddenly dies after going out on a picnic with his wife and it is found that he had been poisoned.
Dalton’s story takes a while to get to this first murder with much of the opening chapters dedicated to exploring and building up our understanding of the dynamics at play in the Condamine household as well as some of the history of the witch trial and subsequent hauntings. These chapters are suitably atmospheric and I was interested in the story of that earlier crime although its prominence in these early chapters does make those details seem more important than they perhaps are.
While it may have a slow start, Dalton does a fine job of creating an intriguing set of circumstances around this first murder. Some of the questions Inspector Collier will have to contend with include figuring out exactly when the poison was administered as well as whether Condamine was the intended target. The answers to both questions are interesting and I think the situation only becomes more intriguing with the discovery of a second murder.
Dalton’s characters can be broadly split into two categories – the locals and those associated with the film. Most are quite colorfully drawn and make enough of an impression that it is easy to follow who everyone is.
Latimer, the film’s director, struck me as the most interesting of the bunch – in part because of his somewhat caustic manner and relationship with his assistant, Evan. Their relationship is pleasingly complex, at moments affectionate yet at others quite exploitative. Evan recognizes that the director is brilliant but it is clear he does not always enjoy spending time with him.
I think it is fair to criticise the prominence of the film development elements of the story for slowing down its early chapters but I must say that I found its presentation of the film industry in this period to be interesting and handled well. Dalton does a good job of balancing the idea of Hollywood and movie making as being glamorous with the practicalities of standing around waiting for filming or the strong egos involved in creating art.
Inspector Collier makes his introduction to the story relatively late. We are well beyond forty per cent of the way into the novel before he appears to take charge of the investigation. Happily once he does we see him quickly exert his influence and perspective onto the case.
I continue to like Collier a lot as a detective, appreciating those moments in which he shows his consideration or humanity. He is shown to be diligent and attentive, asking perceptive questions and making some critical logical connections from the answers given. He remains a detective who interests me and I hope to read more of his adventures soon.
So, what doesn’t work about this novel? Not much – it is a pretty quick and entertaining read. I think Dalton structures her story very well and I enjoyed seeing how she spun the plot points together, creating a pretty exciting and dramatic build up to its conclusion. Happily that conclusion is built upon some solid deductive reasoning!
Were I to stretch for a problem it would be that the novel’s opening does seem to lack some focus, though I do think it highly entertaining in places. On the whole though, I feel that the various elements are crafted well and the story built to a conclusion I found both clever and satisfying.
It is definitely worth a try if you are curious about Dalton’s work but I might suggest that because of Collier’s late entry in the story it might make sense to pick and try one of his other adventures first if learning about the sleuth is your primary focus in reading mysteries. I certainly enjoyed it enough that I plan further reads in this series. If anyone has read the Collier series I would appreciate any suggestions you can make concerning which to read next.
The Verdict: The mix of vintage film and a mysterious haunting worked for me.
Curtis Evans shares his thoughts on this story in an essay on his blog, The Passing Tramp.