Classic Crime

Celia Dale

Not very much is known about the author Celia Dale except for a few scant details. Celia Dale was born in 1912 and she was daughter of the actor, James Dale and was married to the journalist and critic, Guy Ramsey until his death in 1959. She worked in Fleet Street and as a publisher’s adviser and book reviewer. Some of her books were dramatised on radio and TV. Dale’s first book appeared in 1943 but it was her later novels where she branched out in to the realms of psychological crime. In all, Dale produced thirteen novels and a collection of short stories.

Celia Dale took everyday domestic situations and gave them a bitter twist. In ‘Helping with Enquiries’ there are only three main protagonists, their story revolving around the murder of the mother. In ‘A Helping Hand’ the vulnerability of the elderly is masterfully portrayed. Dale won the 1986 Crime Writer’s Association Veuve Cliquot Short Story Award for ‘Lines of Communication’ which appears in her short story collection, ‘A Personal Call and other stories’ which show that Dale had the short story down to a fine art. Her final book in 1988 was ‘Sheep’s Clothing’.

Celia Dale died on the 31st December 2011, just short of her hundredth birthday.

Review: Sheep's Clothing

As I have mentioned, Dale wrote about domestic situations and she seems to have had a very canny ear on social issues as well as displaying a dry sense of humour that threads its way through her books. Her last novel, ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ (1988), like ‘A Helping Hand’ tackles the subject of the elderly and how they can be an easy target to confidence tricksters. This must have been a subject close to Dale’s heart as ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ was written when she herself was in her late seventies.

But Dale was never one to shy away from an issue in case it should cause offence. Her novel, ‘A Dark Corner’ revolves around the issue of race. When a young black man arrives at the wrong door of a couple he believes have a room to rent he could never know what the outcome would be. Taking him in on a filthy night, Errol ends up staying with Mr. and Mrs. Didcot but the idyll is soon lost when Errol discovers that not everything is rosy in the Didcot household. ‘A Dark Corner’, written in 1971 is an interesting study of people’s views on the black community back in the 70’s. Thankfully, in such a short time we have certainly come a long way but Dale’s observations and portrayal towards certain communities back in those days is certainly eye-opening. ‘A Dark Corner’ is only 155 pages long (classed as a novella these days) but it still packs a punch in so few pages although the crime aspect of the novel that leads to the open ending is something of an afterthought.

Dale’s last book, ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ is her most accessible. In Grace Bradby, Dale introduces a cold, calculating woman without a shred of emotion. A woman who believes that personal gain is the only objective worth working for. With a startling cunning that is as horrific as any serial killer, Grace with the help of Janice who she met in prison systematically rob the elderly whilst posing as DHSS officials (this book was written before they dropped the ‘H’). As this pair of confidence tricksters take the meagre savings and possessions of their victims, their plan begins to unravel. Janice is more of a liability than Grace originally thought and soon she is on the scent of another scam that will bear greater fruit. With an insidiousness that could only be described as inhuman, Grace again inveigles herself in to a household where she is claimed to be an angel – but soon the mask slips and her true nature is shown. ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ is a master class in portraying a wolf in sheep’s clothing as Grace slowly encircles her chosen victim. Dale appears to have her finger on the pulse and it is because of her accuracy that the great Ruth Rendell once claimed ‘I can’t think of anyone whose stories of suspense I appreciate more’. HRF Keating said Dale had ‘the accuracy, understanding and quiet wit of Jane Austen – plus murder’. It is a shame that Dale’s novels have fallen out of publication however, Faber print on demand four of her novels, three crime – ‘A Dark Corner’, ‘A Helping Hand’ and ‘Sheep’s Clothing’. They are definitely worth reading and although they are a snapshot of the times, unfortunately the crimes described in ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ are sadly still ongoing in today’s society.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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