A review of Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh
It is over a year since I read Ngaio Marsh’s Artists in Crime. Although I enjoyed that book, I had found some of her earlier novels a bit of a struggle. Absence may make the heart go stronger as I thoroughly enjoyed her seventh book in her Inspector Alleyn series, originally published in 1938, set in the world of London’s high society and the world of debutantes.
Quite often in so-called Golden Age detective fiction, the victim of the murder is so unpleasant a character that no one sheds a tear at their demise, reckoning instead that they got their just desserts. Here, though, Marsh’s victim, Lord Robert Gospell, Bunchy to his friends, was a thoroughly good egg, tremendous company, garrulous, witty, sympathetic, alive to the nerves of the girls being introduced to society. His death, knocked on the head with a cigarette case and then suffocated in the back of a taxi, is felt by his close circle of friends, especially Inspector Alleyn who vows to work tirelessly to bring his killer to justice, as, of course, he does.
There is something de nos jours about the high and the mighty being interviewed about a crime and their whereabouts by the police, even if the officer is one of their peers. They may live in a gilded cage, their every want met by a hidden army of servants – only the butlers are worthy of a mention – but they are subject to the constraints and rigours of the law, just like the reader.
Bunchy’s death occurs as the final guests are leaving the eagerly anticipated ball given by Sir Herbert and Lady Evelyn Carrados, for Evelyn’s daughter, Bridget. Even Alleyn’s mother, Lady Alleyn, is going as she is tasked with bringing out her niece, Sarah. Bunchy, though, is on a special mission. There is a blackmailer operating, targeting society ladies and their victims include Evelyn Carrados and the marvellously named Mrs Halcut-Hackett and Alleyn has asked his friend to keep his eyes open. He does his job too well, sees a bag of money change hands, and while he is ringing up Alleyn at the yard with the information he has obtained, he is interrupted, the call is curtailed, and shortly afterwards Bunchy’s body is found at the Yard, dead in the back of a cab.
In truth, it is not difficult to work out who the pantomime villain is, but the murderer and the motivation is trickier. There are intriguing subplots, the relationship between Bridget and Bunchy’s wayward nephew, a gambling den in Leatherhead of all places, the curious behaviour of the husbands of the blackmailed women, the art enthusiast who is also a doctor, the enigmatic secretary to Evelyn, Miss Harris, who clearly knows more than she lets on, and not least, the continuing relationship between Alleyn and the artist, Agatha Troy, which could have been derailed by the unpleasantness at her home in the previous book, but is going from strength to strength.
Marsh is in her element, writing in a vivid and engaging style, not without humour, and taking the time to set the scene and paint her characters. Much of the book is episodic, full of little scenes as if it was a play – an effect enhanced by the lengthy dramatis personae at the front of the book – testament to Marsh’s theatrical background.
Alleyn solves the case in 48-hours and brings all the suspects and protagonists to the Yard for a meeting in which he drip feeds the solution, adding to the drama by bringing in person after person as he reveals to Evelyn and Sir Herbert Carrados the identity of the blackmailer and Bunchy’s murderer.
It is a great read and has reignited by enthusiasm to follow Alleyn’s exploits further. I can see why it is considered to be one of Marsh’s better books and, if you just want to sample one of her books, this may just be it.