Originally published 1929
Inspector Collier #1
Followed by The Night of Fear
Elbert J. Pakenham of New York City is among just nine survivors of the sinking of the Coptic – not counting his black cat Jehosaphat. The benevolent Mr. Pakenham has made his fellow survivors joint beneficiaries in his will, his nephew having recently passed away. But it seems that someone is unwilling to share the fortune, as the heirs start to die under mysterious circumstances . . .
Then Mr. Pakenham himself disappears, and Inspector Collier of Scotland Yard suspects dirty work. When a trap is laid that seriously wounds his best friend at the Yard, Superintendent Trask, Collier is certain his suspicions are correct. Into his net are drawn a charming young woman, Corinna Lacy, and her cousin and trustee, Wilfred Stark; a landed gentleman of dubious reputation, Gilbert Freyne, and his sister-in-law, Gladys; an Italian nobleman of ancient lineage and depleted estate, Count Olivieri; and a Bohemian English artist, Edgar Mallory. But Collier will need some unexpected feline assistance before the case is solved.
There are some elements of golden age mysteries that just seem to excite me. At the top of that list would be any mention of curare, that mysterious and rare poison that every English aristocrat seemed to possess a jar of. Right behind that though would be the tontine will.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term or idea, a tontine will designates a certain group of individuals as the beneficiaries. At the moment of death the surviving members would be paid an equal share of the bequest. This is, of course, mystery fiction gold because you instantly create a situation in which the characters all share an equally powerful motive to remove the other members to increase the size of their portion.
One by One They Disappeared involves just such a will. Elbert Pakenham, a wealthy American, had a narrow escape with death when he and eight other passengers survive the sinking of the Coptic during a transatlantic voyage. Each year he had thrown a dinner for his fellow survivors in England, bestowing them with small gifts. Then, realizing he is aging and that he has no one else to leave the money to, he announces that he has made all of his fellow survivors joint heirs in his will.
This story begins with the dinner the year after this announcement has been made. Pakenham is dismayed to find that only a couple of the survivors show up to that year’s dinner. When one of the survivors dies in a suspicious fall in a place he had no reason to be, Collier suspects foul play and soon discovers that several of the other beneficiaries had also disappeared.
As setups for this sort of story go, I think this gets things off to a promising start. For one thing, I appreciated that we come into this murder plot after it is already well underway. For one thing, it does mean that our sleuth can see a pattern emerging and allows for the suspect pool to be whittled down to a more manageable number.
The sort of informal role that Inspector Collier has at the beginning is a little awkward as he really has no standing to investigate the case at that point. On the other hand, I think Dalton does provide us with some convincing reasons for him to become interested in the case and by the time things get more serious he does have a more formal part to play.
This is, of course, Collier’s first outing as a detective and I was a little surprised that Dalton does not seem to spend much time establishing his character. Instead she really just throws us straight into the case and introduces him as we learn about and follow his efforts to investigate the crime. Still, I think the essential qualities of his character are communicated to the reader in the way we see him deal with the other characters and the consideration he shows throughout the investigation. He is not necessarily a strong character but I think he is a thoroughly likeable one.
The other characters were, for me, a little more inconsistent. Pakenham is certainly an interesting figure and I appreciated the way he is shown to respond to the situation that develops. He ends up playing an important and active role in the story which I did not expect and I think his involvement did lend an extra level of interest to the situation.
The suspects however are a largely different matter. Their personalities and characters are displayed to the reader from their first appearances, making spotting the culprit frustratingly easy. The shadier figures instantly stand out while others can be immediately dismissed because of their involvement in a secondary, romantic plotline.
As with the other Dalton novels I have read, this does have a certain direct quality that helps make it a page-turning read. There is a sense that Collier is constantly edging nearer to catching the killer and while the action in the plot is fairly limited, I did appreciate that there are a few moments of excitement as we near the conclusion.
As for that conclusion, well – I think that the story shares some stylistic elements with the thrillers Christie was writing in this period. That sort of storytelling is not a particular favorite for me and I think there are a few aspects of the explanation that seemed a little confusing but here I cannot go into any more detail without spoiling which, of course, I have no wish to do.
So, where does that leave One by One They Disappeared? I think it is clear that this is an early work and there are a few rougher edges. For instance, the suspects feel a little flat and the decision to pull the story to a conclusion seemed rather arbitrary.
It isn’t bad – I would certainly reach for it ahead of most of those Christie thrillers. What keeps me from a more enthusiastic recommendation is that I have already come across other Dalton novels I liked more. I would far more readily recommend either The Art School Murders and The Condamine Case, both of which feel more refined works. Still, this is a fun and quick read and while I would suggest getting to know Collier through other stories first, this is a good, solid read worth circling back to.
The Verdict: A lively tontine tale with some entertaining but rather far-fetched plot developments. While this was the first Collier novel published, I would start with a later title and come back to this.