Review: A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead, (Roderick Alleyn #1), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2011 (originally published in 1934).

Summary: Sir Hubert Handesley hosts one of his famous weekend parties and Nigel Bathgate, a young reporter is invited to join his cousin Charles Rankin for the weekend’s entertainment, the Murder Game, which becomes serious when Rankin turns up the corpse–for real!

Charles Rankin, a man about town and his younger cousin Nigel Bathgate have been invited to one of Sir Hubert Handesley’s famous house parties. The are joined by Sir Handesley’s niece, Angela North, Arthur and Marjorie Wilde, Rosamund Grant, at one time enamored with Rankin and a Russian art expert, Foma Tokareff. The entertainment for the weekend is the Murder Game. Someone is given a card making them the murderer. They have so many hours to carry out the murder, whispering the words “You’re the corpse” in the ear of the victim. The murderer then bangs a gong, turns out the lights and blends in.

While the guests are dressing for dinner, in connecting rooms where they hear each other, they hear the gong and the lights go out. When they assemble, they discover the victim, Charles Rankin. In his back was a knife that had been under discussion the previous evening, a gift for services to Rankin. It had occasioned alarm among the Russians: the art expert and the Russian butler, Vassily. The knife evidences a sinister history with a “brotherhood” with which Vassily was connected, at least at one time. To possess this was to be accursed. Rankin laughs it off and makes out a “joke” will bequeathing the knife to Sir Handesley should Rankin die first. Sir Handesley had an avid interest in weaponry.

Enter Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, the first time we are introduced to him. He’s courteous, thorough, and has quickly ruled out Bathgate, who was witnessed by a maid in his room at the time of the murder. This sets him up to be Alleyn’s sounding board, the beginning of their friendship that runs through the books.. Things get more interesting when Vassily flees the scene. Was this a case where the butler really did it? At another point, Mr. Wilde comes forward but the facts don’t add up. It seems there is a house full of innocent people and yet a man who lay dead. Maybe an outsider really did it.

This being the first of the series, one can see how Ngaio Marsh caught on. The characters are fashionable and some are edgy, like Angela who has chemistry with Bathgate, and loves to drive excessively fast in her Bentley. There are enough red herrings both to interest and distract, and even a scene where Bathgate is deceived and subjected to torture! Marsh combines the leisure of a country house and the excitement of murders, fast cars, bits of this and that found about the premises and a climactic gathering of the suspects as they prepare to depart after the inquest. We turn to a book like this for both leisure and enough excitement to hold our interest and Marsh delivers this in her debut to the Alleyn series.

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