Tag Archives: Nigel Bathgate

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.

Death In Ecstasy

Death in Ecstasy – Ngaio Marsh

This fourth Inspector Alleyn novel, published in 1936, is an odd affair and I am still unsure what to make of Ngaio Marsh. For some the characterisation of two of the characters will seem overtly homophobic, capped off by the comment that they could not be the culprits because they wouldn’t have the guts for murder. Also, from a police procedural perspective, it is very odd for Alleyn to spike one of the suspect’s drinks. And then we have the problem of dear old Nigel Bathgate.

At a loose end, Bathgate looks out of the window of his flat on a wet and windy evening and espies a motley group of characters entering the door of a building nearby. His interest piqued, he goes along to see what is happening. He has stumbled upon the House of the Sacred Flame. Refused entry by the doorman, he manages to sneak in and witnesses a bizarre quasi-religious ritual involving the group standing in a circle, chanting the names of gods and passing around a chalice. Would you believe it but the very ceremony that Bathgate chooses to observe ends in tragedy, the “Chosen Vessel”, Cara Quayne, quaffing some poison from the chalice and dying. The newshound rings for Alleyn to investigate.

Bathgate seems to have a nose highly tuned for a story – disaster seems to follow him about – but once he has been used as a plot device to get the story off the ground, Marsh has the problem of what to do with him. Inevitably, he hangs around, adding little to the story and distracting us from Alleyn’s official helpers, Fox and Bailey.

The cast of suspects are a motley crew of eccentrics, all stereotypical in their own way and none of whom Marsh seems to have any sympathy for. The leader of the sect is a conman, Jasper Garnett. A leading light in the movement is an American businessman, Samuel J Ogden. There is a Frenchman, Raoul de Ravigny who was friendly with the victim, Janie Jenkins, the youngest of the group, who is in love with the addict Maurice Pringle. To complete the list of suspects there is an elderly spinster and all-time busybody, Ernestine Wade, and a jealous woman, Mrs Candour.

By fair means or foul, Alleyn tries to sort out what really happened during the ceremony. It all revolves around poison and at least Marsh did her homework, thanking in the preface to the book, Robin Page for his advice on sodium cyanide, and Robin Adamson for “his fiendish ingenuity in the matter of home-brewed poisons”. In truth, the mystery is not too hard to solve when you realise that money is the root of all evil.

It was a moderately entertaining story, but there were too many irritants along the way to make the book anything more than that.

The Nursing Home Murder

The Nursing Home Murder- Ngaio Marsh

Published in 1935, this is the third in Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn series and, frankly, the first that I have actually enjoyed. The mischievous side of me is tempted to say this us because it is the only one of her books that she co-wrote, with H Jellett, a surgeon, to get the medico elements right. The Times, no less, was impressed with the book, though, claiming it was one which “transformed the detective story” from a puzzle to a full-blown and fascinating novel. Agatha Christie has one of her characters in Murder in Mesopotamia reading it.

Some would say that we have too many murders in nursing homes over the last year or so in real life to want to read about one in fiction, but we need to be clear on terminology. In the context of Marsh’s novel, it is more akin to a private hospital than a resting place for the old and infirm. The patient, Sir Derek O’Callaghan is the Home Secretary and is tasked with steering through the House of Commons a bill to deal with the growing anarchist problem. He has already received several death threats and to add spice to the mix has had an affair with a young lady which he has rather brusquely terminated. The woman scorned, who just happens to be a nurse, has sent him impassioned and threatening letters.

O’Callaghan has been suffering from abdominal pains and his sister, Ruth, is always suggesting quack cures to give him some relief. He also has a violent argument with Sir John Phillips, who happens to be a surgeon and is carrying a flame for the nurse. When O’Callaghan collapses in the Commons he is taken to the nursing home aka private hospital where he has to have life-threatening emergency surgery and imagine his surprise and horror when he discovers that Phillips is to perform the operation together with the nurse he has jilted. Amongst the other medics in attendance there is Nurse Banks who is an anarchist sympathiser and an anaesthetist who has an unfortunate track record.

In the lead up to the operation O’Callaghan receives three injections, each from someone who has a motive to see to his demise, and surprise, surprise, he doesn’t survive the procedure. O’Callaghan’s wife, Cicely, doesn’t accept that this was an unfortunate outcome of the operation and presses for a post-mortem and full investigation. Inspector Alleyn, with his journalist sidekick, Nigel Bathgate, is called into investigate.

During the course of the novel we plunge into the murky world of political agitators and meet a bewildering array of characters. There are red herrings aplenty – was I the only one who began to suspect Ruth? – and the narrative jumps around so much that at times it is difficult to keep track of what is going on. Alleyn pulls most of the strands together by getting all the suspects together – this seems to be part of his modus operandi – and reconstructing the events around the operation. The person with a guilty conscience cracks under the strain.

Perhaps because of the large cast of characters, much of the characterisation is weak and the main protagonists are uninspiring and bland. Where Marsh scores is in creating the atmosphere of the operating theatre, presumably drawing upon Jellett’s expertise.

The patient, Marsh’s corpus, is showing some sign of improvement, but it will be sometime before I am convinced that her reputation as one of the doyenne’s of crime fiction is warranted.  

Enter A Murderer

Enter A Murderer – Ngaio Marsh

Published in 1935 this is Marsh’s second detective novel and features Detective Inspector Alleyn and his well-connected, journalist sidekick, Nigel Bathgate. The book opens with an unpleasant argument between the theatrical impresario, Joseph Saint, and his nephew and lead actor, Arthur Soubonadier. Soubonadier then has a row with his love interest and leading lady, Surbonadier. We quickly get an insight into his character and it is no surprise that he is killed. There are several in the cast with motive enough to want to put an end to him.

It is the manner of Soubonadier’s ending that makes the story. In front of an audience at a performance of the play, The Rat and the Beaver, including Alleyn and Bathgate, he is shot dead, the dummy bullets in the gun seemingly replaced with live ones. A blackout at the start of the final act gave the murderer the opportunity to effect the switch and carry out the deed. Who did it?  

Marsh was an accomplished theatre director, her speciality was Shakespearean drama, and she draws on her wealth of knowledge of the theatre to create the atmosphere – you can almost smell the greasepaint – and takes delight in detailing the foibles, characteristics and traits of the acting profession, their phobias, neuroses and petty jealousies. That is fine and adds to the colour and authentic feel of the book, but, frankly, the crime set up was cliched even for the time it was written.

I am struggling to get into Ngaio Marsh. Her early works seem to me as though she has just taken delivery of a new car and is slowly trying out the gears, timidly depressing the accelerator to see how fast and far it will go. One of my problems with the book is the role of Bathgate. He is like a puppy dog, almost always at Alleyn’s side, a role that is barely believable in a police investigation, adding barely anything to the story other than being a sort of everyman who is struggling to make sense of the clues. Alleyn’s paid sidemen, Messrs Fox and the fingerprint man, Bailey, barely get a look in, even though they have the professional skills and acumen to make a significant contribution to the investigation. Alleyn also gets emotionally entangled in the case, which is very much a 1930s thing. There is too much cliché for my taste.

If you are wanting to be pedantic, the story is not very well plotted, with loose ends, particularly in respect of the blackmail. When it rears its head, it seems to be a big deal and will play a key part in the motivation for the murder but, at the end, it just seems to be left hanging in the air. There are red herrings galore and when the culprit is finally unmasked, the solution is neat enough, but I felt had it been in more experienced hands, it would have been a much better book.

On the plus side, Marsh keeps the suspense going right up to the last minute, the culprit revealed just before the end, in almost, but not quite classic last page style. Her characterisation is good, and her writing is crisp, clear and she is capable of turning out some memorable sentences and passages. I haven’t seen anything in her early works that suggest she will rival the major female crime writers, as she eventually does, but I will continue to read the series with interest.