Enter A Murderer

Enter A Murderer – Ngaio Marsh

Published in 1935 this is Marsh’s second detective novel and features Detective Inspector Alleyn and his well-connected, journalist sidekick, Nigel Bathgate. The book opens with an unpleasant argument between the theatrical impresario, Joseph Saint, and his nephew and lead actor, Arthur Soubonadier. Soubonadier then has a row with his love interest and leading lady, Surbonadier. We quickly get an insight into his character and it is no surprise that he is killed. There are several in the cast with motive enough to want to put an end to him.

It is the manner of Soubonadier’s ending that makes the story. In front of an audience at a performance of the play, The Rat and the Beaver, including Alleyn and Bathgate, he is shot dead, the dummy bullets in the gun seemingly replaced with live ones. A blackout at the start of the final act gave the murderer the opportunity to effect the switch and carry out the deed. Who did it?  

Marsh was an accomplished theatre director, her speciality was Shakespearean drama, and she draws on her wealth of knowledge of the theatre to create the atmosphere – you can almost smell the greasepaint – and takes delight in detailing the foibles, characteristics and traits of the acting profession, their phobias, neuroses and petty jealousies. That is fine and adds to the colour and authentic feel of the book, but, frankly, the crime set up was cliched even for the time it was written.

I am struggling to get into Ngaio Marsh. Her early works seem to me as though she has just taken delivery of a new car and is slowly trying out the gears, timidly depressing the accelerator to see how fast and far it will go. One of my problems with the book is the role of Bathgate. He is like a puppy dog, almost always at Alleyn’s side, a role that is barely believable in a police investigation, adding barely anything to the story other than being a sort of everyman who is struggling to make sense of the clues. Alleyn’s paid sidemen, Messrs Fox and the fingerprint man, Bailey, barely get a look in, even though they have the professional skills and acumen to make a significant contribution to the investigation. Alleyn also gets emotionally entangled in the case, which is very much a 1930s thing. There is too much cliché for my taste.

If you are wanting to be pedantic, the story is not very well plotted, with loose ends, particularly in respect of the blackmail. When it rears its head, it seems to be a big deal and will play a key part in the motivation for the murder but, at the end, it just seems to be left hanging in the air. There are red herrings galore and when the culprit is finally unmasked, the solution is neat enough, but I felt had it been in more experienced hands, it would have been a much better book.

On the plus side, Marsh keeps the suspense going right up to the last minute, the culprit revealed just before the end, in almost, but not quite classic last page style. Her characterisation is good, and her writing is crisp, clear and she is capable of turning out some memorable sentences and passages. I haven’t seen anything in her early works that suggest she will rival the major female crime writers, as she eventually does, but I will continue to read the series with interest.

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