Friday, January 15, 2021

Herald of Death - Max Dalman

THE STORY: Sound the bugle! Mount your horses! The fox hunt has begun. But this fox hunt ends with a decidedly different killing. Richard Marney is found stabbed with an ornate stiletto just short of an infamous hazard requiring skillful horse jumping maneuvers known as The Cliff. Suspicion falls first on Hugh Egmont, rival for the affection of Joan Marney, Richard’s cousin. Police investigation uncovers a history of other Marney family members having recently died in violent accidents. When Joan is attacked late one night the police begin to think that a killer is intent on murdering the entire Marney family.

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.

INNOVATIONS: Some well done scenes feature an eerie presence only heard and never seen. A horrid mournful screeching is heard in the night and at one point Joan is menaced and followed by this apparently invisible thing in the night. Cats are featured in the story and might appear as red herrings to all but the most astute reader. Dalman can be effective in creating atmosphere and chilling the bone in these quasi-supernatural sequences. He almost succeeds in making the reader believe some fantastical creature might be involved in the various deaths that occur. When the true explanation for the mysterious screeching comes in the final pages it fails to achieve the desired effect and comes almost as an anticlimax. Certainly nothing as chilling as what John Dickson Carr might have come up with.

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.


  1. Thank you for another interesting review. Unsurprisingly I had not heard of this book. At the start of your review I got suitably intrigued, but your final comments make me less sure whether to try and find a copy. Perhaps as you saying trying an earlier different title might be best. However, I will look forward to your future reviews to see whether there are some real gems in their body of work.
    My current read is June Wright's Reservation for Murder. Finally been able to get my hands on the reprint copy. At the end of the introduction by Derham Grove she says the publishers are planning on reprinting the final two Mother Paul books this year. Can't see anything yet on Amazon though as to a possible release date.

    1. Sad to report that the next couple of posts are less than favorable. The good stuff is coming, I promise! I have a backlog of reviews from November and December and I’m just now getting to write, edit, illustrate and publish them.

      I was reading less last year as I became completely addicted to Kino Marquee’s online movie steaming service. This past year I’ve watched more movies than in the past ten years total. Seriously! But now I’m trying to create an improved regular Blogging schedule. Expect more of a presence from me in 2021.

    2. Well at least your reviews will show us what books not to spend our money on, in the event we ever come across a copy of course! I am impressed you can write reviews for books read that long ago - I think my impressions would be somewhat foggy, even with notes.
      I have reviewed Reservation for Murder now and looking at your review, (which I have linked to), we're kind of on the same page I think. That last death!! Sort of thing you could nightmares about...
      Whilst I am here and I remember, two further questions:
      1. Have you read She Wouldn't Say Who by Delano Ames
      2. I am guessing you have read some of Doris Miles Disney's books, but which would you say are your favourites?

    3. Not read a single Delano Ames book. I think I only have two of them.

      As for Disney I've read a few back in my teen years because our local library had a bunch, but I can't remember a thing about them. The only book I've reviewed on the blog Voice from the Grave was rather good though I kind of saw the ending coming way before the climax. I like her books when she is writing dark suspense in the manner of Ursula Curtiss. They seem very much in the same school of crime fiction. I have The Magic Grandfather lined up for the end of the month. Isn't that one in your TBR pile? I saw it in the sidebar "Awaiting Trial" on your blog. I bought my copy back in the fall of 2020. Yes, another in the backlog!

    4. Ah I vaguely remembered you had some Ames novels, but could not remember which ones you had and whether you had read them yet or not. It is a rare moment to have read a rare book you haven't read yet!
      I really enjoyed The Family Skeleton by Miles, but have had a more mixed response to the others I have read by her. My next read is a Miles book - The Straw Man. I am hoping going back to her earlier stuff will be better. I have checked and I do have The Magic Grandfather, but I imagine you will get to it before I do.

  2. Thanks for the reviews and good luck with the reading this year. I've been on a more supernatural bent of late, Chris Priestley's Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, aimed at a younger audience so read like Victorian tales, full of atmosphere but the grue so a lot more is left to the imagination. I really have enjoyed them. Wayne.