Tag Archives: Ngaio Marsh

Death At The Bar

A review of Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh

It has taken me a while to warm to Ngaio Marsh, but the books written in the late 1930s and early 40s see her in fine form. Written in 1939 but published in 1940 the setting for Death at the Bar allows her to indulge her penchant for unusual settings and unusual murder methods as well as, in this case, to craft an excellent pun. The murder occurs in a bar, the Plume of Feathers in the south Devon village of Ottercombe, while the victim, Luke Watchman, a King’s Counsel, is also a member of the other bar.

Ottercombe is Watchman’s regular holiday retreat, and he is there with his two friends, Sebastian Parrish, an accomplished movie star, and Norman Cubitt, an up-and-coming painter. Watchman, though, has an unerring knack of rubbing people up the wrong way and takes a particular dislike to a relative newcomer to the village, Bob Legge, who amongst other things is a leading light in the local Leftist movement and an accomplished darts player. Their two cars lock horns as Watchman makes his entrance to the village and the barrister is keen to cast aspersions on his and some of the others’ political beliefs. There is a feeling that the two have had some previous encounter.

Watchman also earns the dislike of the publican’s son, Bob Pomeroy, and the girl he believes to be his girlfriend, Decima Moore. Legge’s party trick is to get someone to put their outstretched hand on the dartboard and to throw a dart between each span. Watchman challenges Legge to repeat his trick, one of the darts hits Watchman’s finger, he collapses and after a tot of brandy mutters “Poisoned” and dies. As Legge had no obvious access to poison, let alone an opportunity to dip a dart into it – they were brand new, unwrapped for the occasion – the verdict of the subsequent inquest is one of accidental death.

Goaded by local, Nark, who alleges that if you use the Plume of Feathers, you run the risk of being poisoned, publican Abel Pomeroy visits Scotland Yard with allegations that Watchman was murdered. Roderick Alleyn, Marsh’s go-to detective, accompanied by his faithful colleague, Fox, lead the investigations.

There are the usual red herrings, some well-constructed misdirections, and several suspects who, at various points of the story, could have killed Watchman for a variety of reasons. Marsh has taken care over her plot and the pieces only start coming together when some background information emerges about the amateur water colourist, Hon. Violet Darragh, who hitherto had been a rather ancillary figure. There are clues dotted throughout the narrative for the alert reader to garner and mull over and while the identity of the culprit ultimately comes as no surprise, the motivation for the murder and the method shows some ingenuity that may have eluded many of Marsh’s readers.

Missing from the tale is Alleyn’s usual Dr Watson, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, his role assumed by the local Chief Constable, the rather eccentric Maxwell Brammington, to whom Alleyn reveals his deductive processes. Annoying as Bathgate can sometimes be, I rather missed him. Agatha Troy is also absent from the narrative, although it is revealed en passant that Alleyn has married her. The little wife knows her place, perhaps.  

Marsh uses the characters in her book to engage in a discussion about left wing politics and the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, which are interesting documents of their time. There are moments of comedy, usually provided by the more rustic characters and Marsh enjoys herself in portraying the Devonian accent and exploring the tensions between the locals and the holidaymakers.

It is an engaging book, an entertaining read, and keeps the reader on their toes.

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.

Death In A White Tie

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.

Artists In Crime

Artists In Crime – Ngaio Marsh

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been struggling with Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn books. This is the sixth, published in 1938, and is the best so far. Perhaps it is because it is almost as much a love story as a piece of detective fiction. We are introduced to Agatha Troy, later to become Mrs Roderick Alleyn.   

The book starts with Alleyn making his way back from his sojourn in New Zealand, a busman’s holiday as he was dragooned in to solve the murder featured in Vintage Murder. It being the 1930s he makes his journey by boat and after leaving Fiji the sleuth has an awkward encounter with a young artist, a Royal Academician no less, who is painting a scene of the harbour. Despite the awkwardness of the first encounter, they strike a friendship of sorts and discover that they will not be too far from each other when they get to Blighty. Troy has an art school at her country home, Tatler’s End, which is near the home of Alleyn’s home with whom he will be staying to complete his recuperation.

So what you will of Marsh, but her murders are nothing short of ingenious. The artist’s model, Sonia Gluck, is impaled on a knife driven through the modelling dais in a reconstruction of a scene that one of the artists is illustrating for a book? There is the usual collection of suspects each with a set of plausible motives. Was it the down-on-his-luck, drug addict sculptor who had an eye for Gluck? Was it one of the female artists in a fit of jealousy because of Sonia’s apparent success with the men? Was it even Troy herself? Blackmail, poison and red herrings galore make for a tricky puzzle for the police to solve.

Inevitably, Alleyn, even though he is on sick leave, is dragged in to investigate, presenting him with a considerable dilemma. Will his growing affections for Agatha Troy cloud his judgment and impede his investigations? What if she is the murderer?

Inevitably, Nigel Bathgate puts in an appearance. As a member of the fourth estate Bathgate has access to some pretty sensitive information which, surely, no senior police officer would allow to happen, and is deployed to interrogate the suspects in an unofficial and clearly inappropriate manner. Nevertheless, Alleyn and his team, with Bathgate in tow, get their collective minds around the problem, sort the wheat from the chaff, and unmask the culprit.

Marsh keeps the mystery going and there are enough twists and turns to satisfy all but the most demanding reader. I had guessed who the likely culprit was but was not quite sure until the denouement. That is the hallmark of a successful crime novel.

The love interest progresses apace and it is fairly easy to anticipate the eventual outcome of that strand of the story. A heart-warming aspect of the story is Alleyn’s relationship with his mother, that sheds a light on a different and softer side of his personality. The characterisation of Alleyn seems to have moved on and he seems a more rounded individual than in earlier books. Again, another reason to like the book.

Surprisingly, for a writer who went out of her way to denigrate the racist attitudes of her country folk, she hailed from New Zealand, in Vintage Murder, Marsh lapses into lazy stereotyping and unfortunate racist language early on in the book. Perhaps she wrote it in a hurry and her lapses failed to be picked up by her editor. Unfortunately, these things go with the territory of books from the early 20th century and if you are going to be offended to the point of throwing the book down in disgust, you perhaps would be better off not reading fiction from this era. Literature opens a window to the attitudes of the time, not those that prevail today.

I enjoyed this book.

Vintage Murder

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.