Saturday, August 8, 2020

Poison Unknown - Max Dalman

The Juliot Research Institute in Poison Unknown (1939) is a small facility entirely funded by a philanthropic grant.  The grant allows for paying the salaries of one professor, one teaching assistant (called a demonstrator in the context of the story) and to help finance the housing for four students who can live on the premises while furthering their unique studies.  Many of the students are involved in poison research and because this is a detective novel you can be sure that one of those students has an interest in the obscure often undetectable poisons of South America. Take a wild guess if a poison dart will be among the clues. Of course! and not one but two.

Professor Roseland is found murdered in the laboratory and at first it seems it an accident occurred, that an experiment that went wrong. Inspector Macleod and Supt. Carbis are suspicious and suspect a possible murder staged to look like an accident. There are indications that various hands have altered the scene where the body was discovered.

Sylvia Roseland, the professor's daughter, and Paul Danton, one of the students, turn amateur detectives competing with the police professionals in an underhanded investigation of their own. As their prime suspect the police have targeted Francis Seymour, Sylvia's boyfriend, and the "demonstrator" for the students. Sylvia is determined to clear Seymour's name.

Classics professor Dr. Boynley, interestingly, is a detective fiction fan. He happens to be in the study in an armchair unseen by Sylvia and Paul and thus has overheard their plan to clear Seymour's name. He then says to them:

"I'd be interested to know what models you propose to follow--Lecoq, Sherlock Holmes, the more recent, but infalliable, Dr. Thorndyke... That perhaps would suit you best, Mr. Danton?  the scientific method..."

Together the three devise an elaborate plan in order to prove that Seymour caught a 6:30 train, traveled to London, and attended a conference.  If their plan succeeds, then as Boynley concludes "his innocence is proven."

Meanwhile the police uncover another murder of a woman they believe to be a prostitute who has dallied with several of the men at the Juliot Institute.  When her true identity is discovered and the reason for her secret meeting that led to her death is finally disclosed the murder of the professor takes on a wholly new shape. Further evidence is gathered (in one case, literally extricated) proving that the professor's death was a cleverly executed murder. 

Poison darts, talk of rare and undetectable poisons and the involved study of toxic chemistry may take up much of the investigation, but the ultimate murder means and motive come as a surprise in the end. The plotting was reminiscent of the kind of favorite trick of our mutual friend Dame Agatha often employed in his devilish murder mysteries. And I fell for it. Bravo Mr. Dalman!

Max Dalman (1905-1951) is not much read these days and I found almost nothing about him online.  He was born Max Dalman Binns in Scarborough and is the son of the equally forgotten British mystery writer Ottwell Binns. Both men are sadly lost to the vaults of myriad obscure crime fiction writers.  Based on this single novel which was engaging from page one, filled with unusual ideas, some clever plotting and exciting set pieces of detection I'd say Max Dalman is worth further investigation. Thanks to some luck with Illinois lottery tickets I netted $145 and used those winnings to splurge on buying some more Dalman books. Expect more reviews on his other novels later this year.

Max Dalman Detective Novels
Three Strangers (1937)
The Hidden Light (1937)
Vampire Abroad (1938)
Death on May Morning (1938)
Poison Unknown (1939)
The Missing Grave (1939)
The Burnt Bones Mystery (1940)
Mask for Murder (1940)
Doctor Disappears (1941)
Third Alibi (1942)
Death Before Day (1942)
Herald of Death (1943)
Death Disposes (1945)
Buried Once (1946)
The Elusive Nephew (1947)


  1. Great to see a review of Dalman's work. It is pretty obscure and can be quite costly as well. (Congrats on your winnings!). I have collected and read 4 of his works -- Third Alibi and The Missing Grave are my favourites although I enjoyed all of them. He writes well although melodrama can sometimes prevail. Would like to read this one and others if they could be less expensive/ reprinted!!

    1. This was a nice surprise of a mystery novel from someone I knew nothing about. Forget about trying to find a review in a mystery blog -- I couldn't even find any contemporary reviews of his work in the online archives of UK newspapers or magazines. Maybe I didn't look deep enough.

      I decided to return to my short reviews of the past with this post and omitted my major criticism. The final chapter, as you point out, does indeed suffer from melodrama. My notes include this brief note: ANTHONY WYNNE ENDING! (all in capitals as I typed it here) referring to Wynne's love of operatic endings in his detective novels which Poison Unknown most definitely resembled in its last 20 pages or so. A talking villain who explains everything, police popping in from a closet where they were eavesdropping, and an over-the-top suicide. Despite that melodramatic finale it has not stopped me from reading more from Max Dalman. I have Herald of Death, Death Before Day and -- coincidentally! -- Third Alibi slated for future reviews.

  2. that's quite a find, John. i am looking forward to reading more reviews of his books but i'd like to know more about his father too:" equally forgotten British mystery writer Ottwell Binns".

  3. This sounds very interesting -- even with the melodrama in the final chapter. I noticed the author died when only 46 years old, and that his last book was published when only 42 years old. Poor health, perhaps?