Killer Dolphin (Inspector Alleyn #24), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015 (originally published in 1966).
Summary: Through an accident, a playwright realizes his dream of a renovated Dolphin Theatre, with packed houses for one of his plays, until a murder occurs and a boy actor is badly injured in a botched theft.
Peregrine Jay is a playwright and director with a dream–to restore the old Dolphin Theatre to the glory it enjoyed under Adolphus Ruby. The building suffered wartime damage with a bomb that left a hole in the stage, and it is in otherwise solid, but decayed shape. Jay arranges to tour the building, and despite being warned, falls through the hole in the stage into a well beneath where water has collected. He’s in danger of drowning when a rescuer comes, pulls him out and takes him to his estate where he is clothed and refreshed. This unlikely savior is the owner of the property who feels responsible for the accident.
Vassily Conducis is a rich magnate with a mysterious manner. In the course of their conversation, he shows Jay a glove that has been authenticated as that of young Hamnet Shakespeare, who predeceased his more illustrious father. It inspires Jay to write a play. Also, under the influence of too much to drink, Peregrine Jay shares his dreams for the Dolphin Theatre. Amazingly, Conducis agrees to bankroll this, working through his business agent, Greenslade.
Months later, the Dolphin gleams in its former glory, Jay has written his play, which will debut at the theatre with its twin dolphins in the lobby. The cast is brilliant if wrought with turmoil–dislikes, broken romances and jealousies, and one difficult to work with actor, W. Hartly Grove, a rival to Marcus Knight on and off stage. Conducis, otherwise removed from the day to day operations, insisted on his inclusion. The other thing insisted upon is a display of the glove, in a glass window, part of a protective safe, very secure, but with an easily guessable combination created by the business manager of the theatre. Superintendent Alleyn has overseen the security arrangements, expressing concerns about that combination.
The play is a wild success on its own merits as well as the draw of the rare glove. On the night before the glove is to be removed to be sold to an American buyer (an offense to Jeremy Jones, Jay’s roommate, who designed costumes for the play and believed in keeping Britain’s treasures in Britain) a terrible thing happens. The overnight watchman finds Jobbins, who watched the theatre in the evening, dead, killed by a blow to the head from one of the dolphins. And the annoying boy actor, Trevor Vere has fallen out of the balcony into the stalls and is in a coma with serious injuries. The glove and some documents, missing from the safe, were found nearby.
Alleyn concludes on the basis of evidence that it must be someone in the cast. Who stole the glove? And why? If Trevor comes around, will he be the guilty one, or know who is? What about Jeremy? And other cast members have motives, as well as connections with the mysterious Mr. Conducis. And what will become of Peregrine Jay’s dream and budding romance with Emily Dunne.
One of the things striking about this work is Marsh’s descriptions of the theatre. One could almost draw sketches of the interior, or at least envision the theatre in one’s mind. She paints not only a picture of this grand old building rising from the river, but evokes an atmosphere of wharves and watercraft, workers and the theatre crowd, all in the mix of this space. What may have been less satisfying was the stereotypic theatre cast, the vain star, the ditzy actress, the rogue, the lover snubbed, the spoiled child actor. There is a fascinating observation about how actors thrive on the drama and emotion within the caste, using it in their acting. I wonder. At any rate, it all worked to advance the story but they all just seemed to be types, with only Peregrine Jay evoking any interest, as well as Conducis, when he appears, definitely one of Marsh’s more interesting character.
Alleyn, of course is drawn into it all, handling the security surrounding the glove. As always, one of the most satisfying aspects of these stories is his patient piecing together of evidence, stories, and histories bringing the case to a successful, and surprising conclusion. This is an engaging book for those who like their mysteries with a bit of “head” on them.