Overture To Death

A review of Overture to Death by Ngaio Marsh

If nothing else, Ngaio Marsh is highly inventive when it comes to designing the way in which her latest victim will meet their death. Idris Campanula, a loathsome, interfering spinster, sits down to play the opening bars of the Overture at the start of the village play, presses the soft pedal, triggering a mechanism that fires a pistol, shooting her straight between the eyes. She crumples spectacularly onto the keyboards in the full view of cast and audience.   

Overture to Death, the eighth in Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series, originally published in 1939, starts of well. She takes care to paint the picture of a small English village, whose protagonists have too much time on their hands, engage socially with each other too much, and are prey to insecurities and petty jealousies, no more so than the two spinsters, Eleanor Prentice and Idris Campanula. Curiously, Marsh, a spinster herself, never seems to portray her spinsters in a good light and these two are straight from central casting, competing to better the other in all aspects of village life, and rivals for the affections of the poor, unworldly vicar, Copeland.

If anything, Eleanor is the worst of the two, determined to spike the blossoming romance between her cousin’s son, Henry Jernigham, and the vicar’s daughter, Dinah Copeland. This is a tale of bitterness, clandestine and frustrated love, pettiness, jealousies, feuds, all bubbling away until they erupt into cold-blooded murder. The intrigue is intensified by the fact that it was Eleanor who was supposed to have played the music, another of those sore points between the two, until she had to pull out at the last minute because of a sore finger. Very few knew of the switch leading to speculation as to whether it was she that was the intended victim.

The Squire, every village has to have one, Jocelyn Jernigham, is in a ticklish position. He is the Acting Chief Constable, and it was his gun which killed Idris. To complete the cast of suspects there is the Doctor, Template, on whose advice Eleanor pulled out at the last minute, and a femme fatale in the form of a widow, Mrs Celia Ross, a newcomer to the village and with whom the doctor is having a fling. She is not all that she appears to be.

As there was a big burglary in the area on the same night, the local police pass responsibility for the murder investigation to Scotland Yard. Alleyn, along with his faithful sidekick Fox, is assigned to the case and the journalist, Nigel Bathgate, makes a welcome reappearance. Marsh’s writing is vivid, there is considerable humour, especially in the characters of the local police and the badinage between Alleyn, Fox, and Bathgate, but the book does begin to pall after a terrific beginning. There is too much of what might be called padding, especially the elongated red herring of the doctor and his floozy, and the letter that Alleyn writes to his beloved, Agatha Troy, who has promised to marry him but seems to be taking her time in doing so. It is as though Marsh realised midway through writing this that it was a mystery not complicated enough to make a full novel but too complex for a short story.

A schoolboy prank, the use of Twiddletoy, a sort of Meccano, a re-enactment of how the murder was done, a dead telephone line, half an onion, a wooden box, some fragments of rubber, the testing of alibis and precisely timing the movements of all concerned, lead Alleyn to the solution. He unmasks the culprit in a set piece scene when all are assembled to hear what he has to say.

It was enjoyable enough as a piece of entertainment, but there was not enough in the book for me to make it a classic.

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