The Nursing Home Murder- Ngaio Marsh
Published in 1935, this is the third in Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn series and, frankly, the first that I have actually enjoyed. The mischievous side of me is tempted to say this us because it is the only one of her books that she co-wrote, with H Jellett, a surgeon, to get the medico elements right. The Times, no less, was impressed with the book, though, claiming it was one which “transformed the detective story” from a puzzle to a full-blown and fascinating novel. Agatha Christie has one of her characters in Murder in Mesopotamia reading it.
Some would say that we have too many murders in nursing homes over the last year or so in real life to want to read about one in fiction, but we need to be clear on terminology. In the context of Marsh’s novel, it is more akin to a private hospital than a resting place for the old and infirm. The patient, Sir Derek O’Callaghan is the Home Secretary and is tasked with steering through the House of Commons a bill to deal with the growing anarchist problem. He has already received several death threats and to add spice to the mix has had an affair with a young lady which he has rather brusquely terminated. The woman scorned, who just happens to be a nurse, has sent him impassioned and threatening letters.
O’Callaghan has been suffering from abdominal pains and his sister, Ruth, is always suggesting quack cures to give him some relief. He also has a violent argument with Sir John Phillips, who happens to be a surgeon and is carrying a flame for the nurse. When O’Callaghan collapses in the Commons he is taken to the nursing home aka private hospital where he has to have life-threatening emergency surgery and imagine his surprise and horror when he discovers that Phillips is to perform the operation together with the nurse he has jilted. Amongst the other medics in attendance there is Nurse Banks who is an anarchist sympathiser and an anaesthetist who has an unfortunate track record.
In the lead up to the operation O’Callaghan receives three injections, each from someone who has a motive to see to his demise, and surprise, surprise, he doesn’t survive the procedure. O’Callaghan’s wife, Cicely, doesn’t accept that this was an unfortunate outcome of the operation and presses for a post-mortem and full investigation. Inspector Alleyn, with his journalist sidekick, Nigel Bathgate, is called into investigate.
During the course of the novel we plunge into the murky world of political agitators and meet a bewildering array of characters. There are red herrings aplenty – was I the only one who began to suspect Ruth? – and the narrative jumps around so much that at times it is difficult to keep track of what is going on. Alleyn pulls most of the strands together by getting all the suspects together – this seems to be part of his modus operandi – and reconstructing the events around the operation. The person with a guilty conscience cracks under the strain.
Perhaps because of the large cast of characters, much of the characterisation is weak and the main protagonists are uninspiring and bland. Where Marsh scores is in creating the atmosphere of the operating theatre, presumably drawing upon Jellett’s expertise.
The patient, Marsh’s corpus, is showing some sign of improvement, but it will be sometime before I am convinced that her reputation as one of the doyenne’s of crime fiction is warranted.