Vintage Murder – Ngaio Marsh
I am struggling with Ngaio Marsh, I admit. Vintage Murder is the fifth in the Inspector Alleyn series and was published in 1937 and, frankly, is the worst of the lot. Marsh’s background was in the theatre, she was an accomplished Shakespearean director and her natural home for a setting for a crime novel, when inspiration fails.
Alleyn is on holiday in New Zealand, recuperating from injuries sustained in his last foray under Marsh’s guidance, and is sharing a carriage with a touring party of British actors who are en route to Middleton for their next performance. There are some odd goings-on on the train with the ditzy Valerie Gaynes losing her money and Alfred Meyer, the head honcho, claiming that someone had tried to push him off the train. Any hopes of a closed room type murder mystery on board the train fly out of the window as the ensemble reach Middleton otherwise unscathed.
Alleyn is invited to the opening night and to the after-show party to celebrate the birthday of the leading lady and wife of Meyer, Carolyn Dacres. Inevitably where Alleyn goes, murder most foul follows. To give her her due, Marsh devises a clever way of dispatching Meyer. As a showman he wanted to make a splash at the party by organising for a large bottle of champagne to be winched down on to the centre of the table. The trick had been practised several times without a hitch. When Dacres finally has made her entrance, naturally she is the last to appear, the bottle of champagne comes down and smashes Meyer on the head, killing him instantly. Someone had moved the settings of the hoist, but who?
Of course, this is a case for the Kiwi police to investigate but they are so in awe that there is not only a representative of the Yard in their presence but also one whose textbook, Principles and Practices of Criminal Investigation, they have studied and adopted as good colonials should. Alleyn, thus, is not only invited to assist with the investigation but is in the uncomfortable position of having witnessed the incident and being a potential suspect.
The investigation reveals the usual tangle of jealousies, rivalries and financial problems. One of the actors, Susan Max, even appeared in the earlier novel, Enter A Murderer. Despite the complexities of the plot, and some unconventional procedures such as taking a prime suspect out for a picnic, Alleyn uncovers the culprit, although, frankly, I had seen it a mile off.
Marsh enjoys herself describing the New Zealand scenery and the distinctive accent. Some local colour is added by the presence of a Maori doctor who adds little to the plot besides allowing Alleyn, and presumably Marsh herself, to tut at some racist comments made by the thespians and the local police.
One highlight of Alleyn being so far away from home is that Nigel Bathgate’s appearances are limited, although the detective does feel the need to correspond with him and gibe him a commentary on how the case is progressing.
I found the book a chore to get through, lacking any real zest or sparkle, a story that gave me the sense of a writer going through the motions. The only thing I will remember about is the way Meyer met his death. Now that is a cracker.