Death at the Bar (Roderick Alleyn #9), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2013 (first published in 1940).
Summary: A holiday at a secluded seaside inn, and a challenge at darts ends up in murder from prussic acid (cyanide).
Three friends return to the remote seaside village of Ottercombe for a holiday. Luke Watchman is a renowned barrister, his cousin Sebastian Parish, a well-known actor, and Norman Cubitt, an accomplished artist who is doing Sebastian’s portrait. They stay at The Feathers, an inn with a pub operated by Abel Pomeroy and his son Will, who is active in a local communist cell with Decima Moore, a stunning local farmer’s daughter returned from Oxford who Will hopes to marry, and Bob Legge, an older gentleman with a mysterious background who already is secretary and treasurer for the group. Legge lives at The Feathers. Also staying at the Feathers is the Hon. Violet Darragh, who hangs about doing amateurish water color sketches while paying particular attention to Legge.
Things start off badly between Watchman and Legge. They have a fender-bender resulting from Legge charging into a blind intersection. The gentlemen extricate their cars, which were not damaged, only to discover on arrival that they are both staying at Feathers. It’s clear from an encounter the first night that they don’t like each other, and Watchman expects he’s seen him before. Legge has a stellar hand at darts, defeating Watchman, and challenging him to a trick where Legge will outline a hand on the dartboard with darts. Watchman declines.
The next day starts benignly enough with Cubitt off painting Sebastian’s portrait. Violet paints nearby. Over a rise Watchman encounters Decima Moore and we learn they’d had a fling on a previous visit by Watchman. Now she wants nothing more to do with him and he forces himself on her only to be repulsed as the painter come over the rise. The weather turns ill that night and Legge can’t make an appointment in nearby Illington because the tunnel into Ottercombe, its only access is impassable. So they are all in the bar. Pomeroy opens a special brandy for the guests, who have already drunk freely. Legge resumes his dart challenge, Watchman takes it up. Abel breaks out a new set of darts to which Legge approves.
The fourth dart pierces one of Watchman’s fingers. He turns pale, sits down. He is averse to blood and his friends chalk it up to that. Abel dresses the wound with iodine, but Watchman worsens. Someone suggests brandy, which Decima pours into Watchman’s empty glass. He barely takes any, saying “poison” through clenched teeth, knocking the glass away in a spasm-like motion. Just then the lights went out amid the storm, things are hectic with broken glass everywhere. When the lights come back on, Watchman is dead.
The local police do a credible investigation of the scene. The dart is found to have traces of prussic acid (cyanide) on the tip. Abel Pomeroy, who had bought prussic acid to kill rats is muttered against by the locals for not securing it. He goes to Scotland Yard to clear his reputation, sees Alleyn, who consults with the locals and is asked in, along with his fellow investigator, Fox. Attention is focused on Legge, but it becomes clear that he could not have put cyanide on the darts before throwing them. Nor was the brandy nor the glass tainted. But lethal levels of cyanide were found in Watchman’s blood. How was he poisoned? And who did it? Both Parrish, who is in financial straits and Cubitt stood to inherit from Watchman. It is clear Decima disliked him. Will was aware of the affair from the previous year. And Legge turns out to have been part of a case prosecuted by Watchman under the name Montague Thringle, taking the fall for a partner, perhaps unjustly.
Alleyn’s challenge is to sort all this out when virtually no one wants to cooperate. Legge is pathologically afraid of the police. And then an attempt is made to poison him and Fox, with Fox getting very ill.
I really enjoyed this story for the delightful cast of characters (Violet Darragh turns out to be quite interesting!), the rustic inn, and the unique seaside setting with its difficult to navigate tunnel that foreshadowed the twisty plot of this story. I found myself surprised at the end by who the murderer was–I had been thinking “anyone but this person.” A very satisfying read!