Death in Ecstasy (Roderick Alleyn #4), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2012 (originally published in 1936).
Summary: Nigel Bathgate happens upon the strange religious rites at the House of the Sacred Flame just in time to witness the death of Cara Quayne, the Chosen Vessel, when she imbibes a chalice of wine laced with cyanide.
Felony & Mayhem Press has been re-printing the Roderick Alleyn mysteries by legendary mystery writer, Ngaio Marsh, one of the “Queens of Crime,” along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. Her main character was Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a gentlemanly and understated detective whose “Watson” is a newspaperman, Nigel Bathgate. His crime investigation team includes Detective-Inspector Fox and his fingerprint expert Detective-Sergeant Bailey.
This story begins when Bathgate, bored on a rainy night, slips into the services of the House of the Sacred Flame, down the street from his flat. Fascination with the pantheon of statues, the worshipers and the mystical rite with Initiates who each identify with a god turns to horror at the culmination of the ceremony. The Chosen Vessel, a single woman of some means accepts a chalice of wine from Jasper Garnette, the Officiating Priest. drinks deeply anticipating spiritual ecstasy. Instead she gasps, her face contorted and collapses. An onlooking physician, Dr. Kasbek smells the scent of potassium cyanide, and Alleyn and his team are called in.
The lead suspects are Garnette and the other Initiates, each of who drank of the chalice. Samuel Ogden, the warden was a businessman ostensibly from America. Raoul de Ravigne, another warden had been enamored with the victim, who was fond of him as a friend, to the point of leaving him her house in her will. Maurice Pringle is an excitable young man who is suffering an addiction to opioids. His fiance, and the youngest initiative is Janey Jenkins, sweet and loving. Ernestine Wade was the oldest while Dagmar Candour was jealous of Cara’s affections toward Raoul, and her being favored as the Chosen Vessel.
Much of the action hinges around a book found hidden in Garnette’s bookcase that falls open to a recipe for homemade cyanide. It came from Mr. Ogden’s books, attracted attention at a party at Ogden’s, then disappeared about the time Claude Wheatley, one of two acolytes, picks up some books for Garnette. Then there are the missing bonds from Garnette’s safe–bonds given for a new building by Cara Quane–and the visit by Cara to his office the afternoon of her death and the will she changed that same afternoon.
What I liked about this story was the relationship of Alleyn and Bathgate–delightful repartee between them as they sort out the evidence of the case. Alleyn is also fascinating in his instincts as to how to interview each suspect. Particularly intriguing is his toughness with the addict, Maurice Pringle, that turns out to be tough love. We see in Alleyn a combination of someone who can be dogged in pursuit of a murderer who has concealed his or her identity well, as well as genuine compassion for lives unraveled by those who have betrayed their trust. Marsh offers just enough twists to keep it interesting, a likable recurring ensemble, and a timely and satisfying denouement.