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.