Death in a White Tie (Alleyn #7), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012.
Summary: At a premiere debutante ball, Lord Robert Gospell’s call to Alleyn about a blackmail conspiracy is interrupted. A few hours later, Gospell turns up at Scotland Yard in the back of a taxi–dead!
It is the season of the debutante ball in London. Chaperoned young women are introduced to eligible young men–a high fashion and high pressure time for daughters and their mothers. Lady Alleyn’s niece Sara is one of those coming out as is Bridget O’Brien, Lady Carrados daughter by her first marriage to Paddy O’Brien and Miss Rose Birnbaum, the retiring protégé of the abrasive and ambitious Mrs. Halcut-Hackett.
Mrs. Halcutt-Hackett comes to Roderick Alleyn to report a blackmailer threatening one of her society “friends” and possibly others. He asks Lord Robert Gospell (aka “Bunchy”), a lovable “Victorian relic” who moves easily among these fashionable circles because he is the epitome of grace and empathy, especially for the scared young girls and their mothers confronted by the intimidating experience of “coming out.” He quickly intuits that there are at least two objects of blackmail–Mrs. Halcutt-Hackett herself and Lady Carrados, whose weariness, attended by Sir Daniel Davidson, doctor to the London elite, seems to stem from more than just the arduous efforts of hosting a ball, which is being capably handled by her quiet and efficient secretary, Violet Harris, who turns out to have a connection to the family going back to the death of her first husband, Paddy O’Brien.
“Bunchy” is a keen observer, and he notes that the hands of the caterer to the rich, Colombo Dmitri, are the very ones that purloin a handbag of Mrs. Halcutt-Hackett, sitting beside him in a darkened concert hall. Later, he witnesses Dmitri return a much thinner handbag to Lady Carrados at the debutante ball. The question is, is he doing this alone or with an accomplice who has access to the material being used to perpetrate the blackmail?
“Bunchy” thinks he has figured it out and calls Alleyn from an upstairs sitting room, but is interrupted as he is about to reveal his hunch. He covers up, discussing a lost item, and arranges to stop by and see Alleyn later that night. A few hours later, Alleyn sees him at Scotland Yard–dead. A cabbie picked him up, but before they set off, he was joined by another passenger in male dress. They stop at Bunchy’s address, and someone feigning Bunchy’s voice gets out wearing Bunchy’s cape. When they get to the other address given, the cabby finds Bunchy dead, and drives on to Scotland Yard. He’d been knocked unconscious by a cigarette case and suffocated, most likely with his own cape.
The delight of this mystery is Alleyn’s concerted effort to find the murderer of his dear friend which involves connecting a number of different pieces and eliminating suspects. Was it Donald Potter, Bunchy’s nephew, who has just been cut off because he prefers his dangerous association with Captain Maurice Withers, who is running an illicit gambling house? Is it Withers? Or Dmitri? Why did Sir Herbert Carrados hide a letter brought him by Violet Harris as a young girl, that had been in the coat of Paddy O’Brien when he died? And what was General Halcutt-Hackett doing when he was out walking near the ball at 3:30 in the morning? There were several, including Donald, Captain Withers, and Sir Daniel Davidson, who knew Bunchy suffered from a heart condition that would have made it easier to suffocate him. And what happened to Bunchy’s voluminous cloak?
There was one odd aspect of the novel for me. It was the scenes of Alleyn and Troy together. I think some modern readers would object to Alleyn’s breaking through the awkwardness between them by forcing a kiss upon her, to which she softens. It’s a classic trope, the idea of the male who is a bit “rough,” asserting his attentions. It surprises me that a female writer would write it this way and I wonder whether this reflects a perception of what her readers would want.
This aside, I think this is one of the most artfully plotted and tightly written of the Alleyn books I’ve read with a great classic climax scene with all the suspects present at Scotland Yard. We also get a glimpse into the frenetic character of the London “season” of the day and what seems an implicit criticism of its often fatuous character.