The village of Little Baring in Somerset has a dark history. Once upon a time, two women were drowned on the ducking stool after being accused of being witches – an accusation levelled by the wife of Hugh Condamine who was sleeping with one of the women. Revenge is seemingly served, however, as the woman descends into madness and death as she is stalked by her victim’s ghost.
The story seems ideal fodder for Stephen Latimer, an up and coming film director, and he heads to Little Baring on the invite of George Condamine, Hugh’s descendant. As Stephen and his assistant Evan Hughes arrive in the area, they become involved in the family and their concerns. Soon (well, soon-ish) a death occurs, but can Inspector Collier keep the ghosts of the past at bay long enough to find the killer?
There are a few reviews of this amongst my blogging buddies at the moment, such as Kate and Brad. You’d almost think, given the same thing happened with The Red Right Hand last month, that we’ve formed a book group, wouldn’t you? Anyway, this was my month to choose the book, or at least offer up three titles to be voted on and this is the one that proved most popular.
Moray Dalton seems to have become one of Dean Street Press’s most popular reprinted authors, and this book does seem to be an exemplar of her work. I enjoyed the other books of hers that I have read, but with none of them particularly exciting me in the way that some Golden Age writers do. I think the reason for this is that the better-known author who I feel she draws comparison to is my old nemesis Ngaio Marsh.
Just to be clear, Dalton is, I think, better than Marsh, but they both are strong on setting and characters. Here, the pre-murder section is excellent, building up the legend from centuries before, the film-makers planning on how to adapt it, the tensions within the family, such as George’s wife’s attempts to acquire the part of the witch in the film… and then the murder happens and it goes downhill. Well, not downhill – it goes flat.
As with Marsh, Dalton isn’t the best at creating an imaginative plot with her setting and the revelation of the murderer was met by me with something of a shrug of the shoulder, as if to say “Is that it?” Ah, says the book, there’s something more to it than that. Oh, say I, you’re right, but it’s not desperately original either, is it?
I think this would have worked better if Inspector Collier had stayed out of it and this was a standalone mystery. Collier has basically the same charm as Marsh’s Alleyn, although he doesn’t seem to be flirting with his fellow officer, but he’s the least interesting character here. Without him, the sudden romance could have been less sudden and the second half could have been as charming as the first.
Still, plenty of people like Marsh, and will like this one too. I enjoyed it, I just wish Dalton had created a better mystery out of the setting.