A Grave Mistake (Roderick Alleyn #30), Ngaio Marsh. New York, Felony & Mayhem Press, 2016 (originally published in 1978).
Summary: A wealthy widow in a small English village dies of an apparent suicide at an exclusive spa, but clues point to murder with a circle of suspects with motives.
The Honorable Sybil Foster of Quintern Place in the village of Upper Quintern is hosting a gathering at her home that serves to introduce a number of characters who will figure in this mystery. Verity Preston, another wealthy resident and playwright, is godmother to Sybil’s daughter Prunella, who we learn is romantically involved with Gideon Markos, an accomplished and well-mannered suitor, the son of nouveaux rich Nikolas Markos, the occupant of Mardling Manor, and an owner of a Troy painting (Troy is Chief Superintendent Alleyn’s wife and accomplished artist), who has his sights set on Quintern Place.
The gathering is broken up when the gardener, McBride, is noticed to have not moved for some time. He has died at his work, which seem to trigger a number of new arrivals. The first, turning up in the village shortly after McBride’s death is Bruce Gardener, who true to his name, is a gardener, who rapidly endears himself to Mrs. Foster, and Verity as well, despite his suspiciously thick Scottish accent. We learn later he was the close companion of Maurice Carter, Sybil’s first husband, who died in a wartime bombing that marked the disappearance of a rare stamp that had been in his possession but was never found.
At a dinner party Nikolas Markos introduces Dr. Basil Schramm, the new house physician at nearby Greengages Hotel. Verity realizes he is Basil Smythe, a student of her father’s, with whom she had an affair until he ditched her. She keeps her own counsels and gives him a wide berth. Completing the ensemble is Claude Carter, Sybil’s son by Maurice, a ne’er do well who seemed to be in perpetual debt and just one step ahead of the law.
All this is enough to send Sybil, who might be characterized as “high strung” to take the cure at Greengages, only to fall under the attentions of Dr. Schramm, provoking the jealousy of Sister Jackson, his assistant. Things come to a head when Prunella asks Verity’s help with her mother. She and Gideon want to get engaged and ask Verity to prepare their way with Sybil. They all go to Greengages, Verity first. To no avail. Sybil wants Prunella to marry John Swingletree, the son of a peer. Gideon exerts his charms but Sybil wants to be escorted to her room, where she remains the rest of the day. That night, about 9 p.m., Dr. Schramm looks in on her when her TV is heard blaring after the hour she usually turns in. She is in her bed, dead from an apparent overdose of barbiturates.
Chief Superintendent Alleyn is assigned to investigate, to ensure there was no foul play. And soon, he finds cause to believe there is–unswallowed pills on the back of her tongue, a pillow beside the bed with a facial impression and tears suggesting it was bitten. Then there is the new will, donating half her fortune to Dr. Schramm, who we learn may not be a doctor at all, if Prunella does not marry Swingletree. Plus there is a tidy bequest to Bruce Gardener.
Needless to say, there is a raft of suspects, chief of whom is Claude Carter, who under the guise of an electrician, took flowers left for Sybil up to her room where he was to “replace” a light bulb that plainly wasn’t replaced. Then Carter disappears. Three locations figure prominently–the room at Greengages where Sybil died, a heart at Quintern Place, and the graveyard behind the village church, where the murderer, and more will be uncovered.
This is one of Marsh’s later works, number 30 in the series, and by this time Alleyn is Chief Superintendent. It was delightful to find that, if anything, her plots were twistier, even in this cozy village. As in other works, it seems that only a few of her characters are fully drawn, the others remaining caricatures. In this case, it is Alleyn and Verity Preston, and oddly enough, Basil Schramm who are the most interesting and complex. The others seem to fill a role.
It seems curious to me that so many of Marsh’s books are set among the upper crust, who rarely come out looking good, aside from a few of the more circumspect, like Verity Preston. Alleyn also is from among the gentry, and one wonders if his presence reflects something of a conscience that offsets those behaving badly, either trivially or immorally or as outright villains. Is there social commentary behind the cozy mystery? Perhaps, but at there is also a well-crafted story that still reads well nearly fifty years later.