Death and the Dancing Footman (Roderick Alleyn #11), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012 (originally published in 1941).
Summary: A staged house-party amid a snowstorm consisting of mutual enemies ends in a death and a suicide that Alleyn must sort out.
Now doesn’t this sound like fun? Gather a group of people who despise each other, only they do not know that their enemies will be present. Then mix them up for a weekend and see what drama results. Add a blizzard that snows them in, allowing no escape, and what do you have. Jonathan Royal of Highfold Manner thinks he has created the perfect drama for his playwright friend, Aubrey Mandrake. Events will sadly unfold otherwise.
Royal has invited Sandra Compline, a wealthy but disfigured widow, and her two sons, William and Nicholas. Nicholas is the playboy, the “flash” one who attracts the ladies, William, the diligent elder son. Nicholas is his mother’s favorite. William brings along his fiance’, Chloris Wynne, who had been engaged to Nicholas but couldn’t abide his skirt chasing. Sandra disapproves of Chloris because she broke the engagement to her beloved Nicholas. Lady Hersey Amblington is a distant cousin of Jonathan who owns a beauty salon. Jonathan has also invited her rival, Madame Elise Lisse, who has been stealing Lady Amblington’s cousins. Completing the number is Dr. Francis Hart, an accomplished plastic surgeon, who accompanied Madame Lisse and appears romantically connected to her. Under a slightly different name, Dr. Hart many years earlier was the young surgeon whose mistake left Sandra Compline’s face permanently disfigured.
Things begin badly despite Jonathan’s ministrations as Nicholas pays undue attention to Madame Lisse, enflaming Dr. Hart. Later, in a table game, Nicholas receives an extra game sheet with a threatening warning. Later in the evening Nicholas accepts a not-so-friendly bet from his brother William involving an early morning dip in the outdoor pool in the winter cold despite mother’s fears for his heart. Mandrake goes to witness and is pushed by someone from behind into the deep end of the pool. He was wearing a cape similar to Nicholas, and Nicholas and others believe it was meant that he be pushed into the deep end, where he couldn’t swim. Having received a threat and seen his friend in the drink, he tries to leave in the snowstorm to no avail. Then later in the day, after a rendezvous with Madame Lisse in her room, Nicholas returns to his own to be struck on the arm, narrowly missing his head, with a brass Buddha set atop the door as a booby trap. Alibis point the finger at the jealous Dr. Hart.
Hart separates from the company, going to the “boudoir” and returning to his rooms. Shortly before 10 pm, Nicholas and William talk in the smoking room. Nicholas leaves William alone, joining others in the adjacent library. They ask William to turn on the war news. It’s early and a rousing dance song, plays on the radio, annoying Hart in the adjacent boudoir so that he goes to bed. A few minutes later, Lady Amblington takes a drink in to find William dead, the back of his head bashed in with one of the weapons Jonathan Royal’s family had collected that had been hanging on the wall.
Once again, it is believed to have been a case of mistaken identity with Nicholas the target. Despite his denials, most believe it is Dr. Hart, even with his heroic but futile efforts to save Sandra Compline, who has taken a fatal dose of sedatives and dies, leaving a note to her son Nicholas.
Perhaps the most edge of the seat part of the story is the attempt of Mandrake, Chloris Wynne, and James Bewling, and outside hand, to make their way to Great Chipping, where Alleyn and Troy are staying with the rector, whose portrait Troy is rendering. Bereft for a time of his team of Fox, Thompson, and Bailey, who eventually arrive, Alleyn begins to investigate the scene and interview the party. Surprisingly, one of the most interesting interviews is with Thomas, a young footman who danced outside the library when the music came on. Who he saw and didn’t were very important to the case as well as giving us our title.
This story seemed to take a lot of time to develop and the endless tabulating of alibis by the guests, who perhaps had nothing else to distract them from their enemies than to play amateur detective, seemed to drag out this story. Alleyn doesn’t come on the scene until two-thirds of the way through. Perhaps this was intended to simulate the interminable day of all these murder attempts in this household of enemies shut up with each other, but it seemed a bit drawn out.
There was a lesson in all this. Don’t try this at home. Don’t play with people’s lives, thinking it will be amusing and come out fine. People with a settled enmity may be civil, but with the right provocation, it can mean murder. That everyone in this party could be a suspect says something. Even the best of us are capable of murder.
One thought on “Review: Death and the Dancing Footman”
Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2022 | Bob on Books