A Man Lay Dead – Ngaio Marsh
Published in 1934, this is the first of New Zealand-born Ngaio Marsh’s thirty-three novels to feature her upper-class detective, Roderick Alleyn. I found the book difficult to get into at first and, whilst entertaining enough, was fairly average fare. It had all the hallmarks of an accomplished author getting into her stride and finding her feet.
The first disappointment for me was the plot. The setting is a weekend gathering at an English country house, standard fare for murder mysteries, where the assembled company are going to play a party game called Murder, where one of the guests is selected as the murderer, one of the guests is ”murdered” and the others have to work out who did it. What fun! Of course, the game of “Murder” goes wrong and one of the guests, Charles Rankin, a philanderer, is murdered. Whodunit and why?
The usual motley crew of characters form the Sir Hubert Handesley’s house party. There was an archaeologist, Arthur Wilde, and his wife, Marjorie whose marriage is rocky, a mysterious Russian art expert, Foma Tokareff, Rosamund Grant, Sir Hubert’s niece, the thoroughly modern Millie of a girl, Angela Morton, and Nigel Bathgate, Rankin’s cousin. Throw in for good measure a Russian butler who is a member of a secret cult, an exotic dagger which has connections with a Russian secret society and there is plenty of scope for a feast of ludicrous alibis, outrageous red herrings and a sub plot of Russian gangsters which really adds little to the storyline other than padding it out. And the way that the murder is committed is preposterous, requiring a high level of balance, gymnastic ability, and all carried out in the dark in the matter of seconds.
Although a third-party narrative, the story is seen through the perspective of Nigel Bathgate, a journalist and terribly nice, well-connected young man. Despite a moment of unbelievably surprising amnesia, Bathgate has his alibi confirmed and is corralled by Alleyn to help him establish who the murderer is. The pair are also assisted by Angela Morton whose pluckiness and devil-may-care attitude, she drives at speeds reaching 60 to 65mph for goodness sake, is just what is needed to combat those dangerous Bolshevik gangsters. The developing love interest between Bathgate and Morton also helps to pad out the book.
It seemed to me that Marsh had not quite settled on how to portray Alleyn. At times he reads like a second-hand Lord Peter Wimsey, debonair, not taking himself too seriously, having a rather flippant attitude to the matter in hand. On other occasions he is a more cerebral detective with a nose for things and an ability to spot what others have missed or to see through a miasma of conflicting alibis and motives.
For all his cleverness, Alleyn cannot actually prove how the murder was committed and has to rely upon an amateurish reconstruction of what he supposed happened and a confession from someone whose earlier attempt to confess all he had contemptuously rejected.
I finished the book, thinking that it was surprising that Marsh was considered to stand alongside her earlier female counterparts, Christie, Allingham and Sayers. It was not a bad book, entertaining enough and well written, but even for its time it was somewhat clichéd, bloated and improbable. That said, Marsh does play fair with the reader and the clues are all there to follow Alleyn’s reasoning, if you can be bothered.
Perhaps the other 32 books will be better!