Death in Ecstasy – Ngaio Marsh
This fourth Inspector Alleyn novel, published in 1936, is an odd affair and I am still unsure what to make of Ngaio Marsh. For some the characterisation of two of the characters will seem overtly homophobic, capped off by the comment that they could not be the culprits because they wouldn’t have the guts for murder. Also, from a police procedural perspective, it is very odd for Alleyn to spike one of the suspect’s drinks. And then we have the problem of dear old Nigel Bathgate.
At a loose end, Bathgate looks out of the window of his flat on a wet and windy evening and espies a motley group of characters entering the door of a building nearby. His interest piqued, he goes along to see what is happening. He has stumbled upon the House of the Sacred Flame. Refused entry by the doorman, he manages to sneak in and witnesses a bizarre quasi-religious ritual involving the group standing in a circle, chanting the names of gods and passing around a chalice. Would you believe it but the very ceremony that Bathgate chooses to observe ends in tragedy, the “Chosen Vessel”, Cara Quayne, quaffing some poison from the chalice and dying. The newshound rings for Alleyn to investigate.
Bathgate seems to have a nose highly tuned for a story – disaster seems to follow him about – but once he has been used as a plot device to get the story off the ground, Marsh has the problem of what to do with him. Inevitably, he hangs around, adding little to the story and distracting us from Alleyn’s official helpers, Fox and Bailey.
The cast of suspects are a motley crew of eccentrics, all stereotypical in their own way and none of whom Marsh seems to have any sympathy for. The leader of the sect is a conman, Jasper Garnett. A leading light in the movement is an American businessman, Samuel J Ogden. There is a Frenchman, Raoul de Ravigny who was friendly with the victim, Janie Jenkins, the youngest of the group, who is in love with the addict Maurice Pringle. To complete the list of suspects there is an elderly spinster and all-time busybody, Ernestine Wade, and a jealous woman, Mrs Candour.
By fair means or foul, Alleyn tries to sort out what really happened during the ceremony. It all revolves around poison and at least Marsh did her homework, thanking in the preface to the book, Robin Page for his advice on sodium cyanide, and Robin Adamson for “his fiendish ingenuity in the matter of home-brewed poisons”. In truth, the mystery is not too hard to solve when you realise that money is the root of all evil.
It was a moderately entertaining story, but there were too many irritants along the way to make the book anything more than that.