THE CHARACTERS: Anonymous letters with cryptic statements using heraldry terms turn up a few days before Marney is murdered giving the book its title Herald of Death (1943). A letter sent to PC Retters seems to predict the death at the fox hunt though the message is worded nebulously, almost in riddle format. Luckily, there is an expert in heraldry in town who helps Retters make sense of the message which seems to hint at future deaths.
Egmont also receives a message telling him the hunt was cancelled the day of the murder, a tactic of reverse psychology that guarantees Egmont, known to be an avid hunter, would be sure to investigate. And so instead of not attending, Egmont makes sure he gets on his horse and rides the usual course. His timing couldn’t be worse, however. As soon as he shows up at the scene of the crime -- the perilous area known as The Cliff -- the police are there investigating what they think is a horse riding accident. Close inspection of Marney’s body reveals the oddly placed stab wound,
Charles Marney, Joan’s father who is in financial difficulty; Mrs. Handley, a mystery novelist; and Retters are the most interesting characters in the book. I vaguely remember an eccentric vicar in the mix, he appeared in only a few incidents at the start of the book, but since his name doesn’t appear in my notes I don’t think he had much to do with the story at all. Everyone else is a stock character of no real dimension – officious policemen, indignant heirs, several garrulous villagers, a pair of gossipy servants, and Joan as the requisite damsel in distress who anyone knows is completely innocent of anything and exists only for love interest and to have her life threatened once or twice.
Overall, the novel is intermittently engaging especially when PC Retters is on the scene. Rarely do we find police constables proving to be the smartest and most abstract thinker among the detectives in novels of the Golden Age. There are perhaps too many detectives in this book and I didn’t care much for the main sleuth Inspector Lyly. I wasn’t sure who I should be paying attention to – Lyly, Supt. Leyland or Retters who Dalman makes not only clever but slightly sinister. For a while I thought Retters had sent all the heraldry letters as an obfuscating distraction.
This novel reminded so much of The List of Adrian Messenger by Philip Macdonald. Both feature a fox hunt and a family decimation plot similar to The Greene Murder Case, Israel Rank and other crime novels with rich families being murdered one by one. The difference with Dalman’s book is that the motive for murdering the Marneys is not made known in full until the final pages. There is an incident in the past mentioned two or three times over the course of the story that stuck out like a bloody thumbmark and made me think I knew exactly who the killer was and the motive for all the deaths. However, the actual “how” as applied to that character in relation to Richard Marney’s murder made no sense. As it turns out I was correct in my tagging the killer. Dalman is mostly good at misdirecting the reader over the course of the book until he overplays his hand with a monologue from the culprit that is intended to be a solution of the crime pointing the finger at another, but in effect turns out to be a confession. As such this is a clever way to attempt to trick the reader, but as it comes towards the end of the book it was too late for me. I had already seen through his flimsily veiled illusion several chapters before.
The overall narrative is also disjointed with no real flow of action. I found it to be repetitive and cyclical. The police revisit the scene of the crimes multiple times, suspects are re-interviewed, and the story is rehashed and repeated. Actual progress only comes in a rushing deluge in the final pages.
The unsurprising reveal of the murderer and a weak explanation of the eerie screech made this just a middling story. It falls well below the promise of what I discovered in Poison Unknown (1939), Dalman’s fifth mystery novel. Herald of Death is from the tail end of his writing career, the twelfth of a total of fifteen books. Maybe his first books are the ones to read. Are the later books lesser works? Had he lost his touch towards the end of his career? Three more Max Dalman mystery novels await me – one before this one in his chronological bibliography, and two right after. I’ll soon see if he’s a true discovery among the many neglected writers I write about here or if he is one of the many hit-or-miss writers who belong in the Hall of Ignominy in that ever growing annex of Forgotten Writers in the Golden Age of Detection.