Final Curtain (Inspector Alleyn #14), Ngaio Marsh. New York, Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1947.
Summary: While Inspector Alleyn is returning from wartime service in New Zealand, Troy Alleyn, his artist wife is commissioned on short notice to paint a portrait of Sir Henry Ancred, a noteworthy stage actor, meeting his dramatic family, encountering a number of practical jokes including one that infuriates Sir Henry at his birthday dinner, after which he is found dead the next morning. Inspector Alleyn arrives home to investigate a possible murder in which his wife is an interested party.
Troy Alleyn is eagerly awaiting the return of her husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, after a lengthy assignment in New Zealand during the war. She is an artist of some repute and receives a commission from Sir Henry Ancred, a noted stage actor, to paint his portrait at Ancreton Manor, the ancestral home of the family. She quickly discovers that she will have to contend with far more than Sir Henry, who is a striking subject. She has to reside with a theatrical family whose daily interactions are high drama. We are introduced to everyone from the responsible Paul, Sir Henry’s son to the flippant Cedric, Fenella, a granddaughter and Paul, a cousin, who are engaged despite Sir Henry’s opposition, Millament, the dutiful widowed daughter-in-law, Pauline, engrossed in her son Paul’s affairs, and Jennetta and Desdemona. Finally, there the young and willful Patricia, or as she is known, Panty–known for her practical jokes.
Troy’s arrival coincides with an outbreak of practical jokes–paint on the bannister to her room, a greasepaint message on Sir Henry’s mirror, and painting over Alleyn’s portrait of Sir Henry–humorous and easily removed. The family all thinks it points back to Panty–except for Troy who has become friends with the young child.
The family drama is heightened by another guest, Sonia Orrincourt, who is Sir Henry’s love interest. Given Sir Henry’s increasingly fragile health and his propensity to constantly change his will, which currently favors Panty, there is all kind of apprehension, gossip, and attempts to manipulate Sir Henry’s outlook. All this comes to a climax at Sir Henry’s Birthday dinner as he announces his new will and his engagement to Sonia. This is followed by the unveiling of Alleyn’s portrait of Sir Henry, once again marred by a cow, like those Panty likes to paint, flying over Sir Henry’s head. While the damage to the painting is easily undone, Sir Henry goes to bed upset in stomach from dinner and emotionally wrought out. Next morning, Barker, the butler, finds him dead.
Troy is present during all of this, which takes up nearly half the book, departing as the undertaker arrives to go and meet her husband. She recounts the story, which he enjoys, even as they get reacquainted. Then, back at Ancreton, things get more interesting. Someone sends the whole family a note written on school paper alleging that Sir Henry was murdered. Sir Henry had been interested in an ancestral embalming method involving arsenic, a book about which was in his library and several had consulted. A tin of rat poison is missing. Inspector Alleyn and his team are asked to make inquiries. Increasingly, he becomes convinced that Sir Henry was murdered.
The story turns on wills and family attachments and the unhealthy loves people can have for those around them. The unusual situation of Troy being an interested party brings her into the investigation. Her memory for detail is invaluable and it turns out that she gives Alleyn the decisive clue.
I have to admit that I had kind of hoped that most of those at Ancreton Manor apart from the butler and Panty would be found guilty. Marsh creates a family full of unlikable people as well as portraying the Inspector’s wife as a capable professional (and detective) in her own right. I hope I encounter more of Troy in future novels! It will be interesting to see if Marsh brings them together on a case again.