Spinsters in Jeopardy (Inspector Alleyn #17), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2014 (first published in 1953).
Summary: Alleyn takes his family along to visit a distant cousin in southern France while collaborating with the French in investigating a drug ring.
The lesson of this story may be not to mix work and pleasure, particularly if your work is as a Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard. Alleyn is on assignment with the French police to bring down an international drug operation. Before he can even reach his destination, two things happen that get wrapped into the plot. He and Troy both witness what appears to be a murder of in a chateau immediately opposite where the train stopped before entering a tunnel. Ricky, their son, is still sleeping. Then they learn an unaccompanied elderly woman, Miss Truebody, has come down with acute appendicitis. When they reach Rocqueville, there destination, they learn the only available doctor (since the others are at a conference) is an Egyptian doctor Baradi, residing at the chateau.
Alleyn learns that authorities think the chateau is the center of the drug operation, which uses a nearby chemical factory. Taking Miss Truebody there gives him an in, particularly because he had experience administering anesthesia in the war and is needed. He learns that the chateau is the center of a weird cult led by M. Oberon, who likes to parade naked in their ceremonies. The guests are mostly elite socialites and actors, many with, or who will soon acquire, drug habits. Marsh devotes several of her stories to plots involving drugs–clearly something of which she did not approve and it’s apparent in her treatment of the characters.
Alleyn and his family arouse suspicion even though they are unsure of his identity, and Ricky is kidnapped to keep them out of the way, and plays a key role in helping break the case. Alleyn’s young and dashing driver becomes his right hand man both as they recover Ricky and help bust the drug cult/ring.
The title? There are three spinsters in jeopardy in this story and one is the apparent murder victim seen in the window by the Alleyns. Along the way, Raoul’s girlfriend Therese gets caught up in kidnapping Ricky but then plays a key role in assisting Alleyn and Raoul. Alleyn’s complicated schemes depend on his French counterpart showing up when needed. Troy pitches in by persuading a young woman not to return to the chateau and helps her and her young man recognize their love is more important than a crazy cult.
It’s all a bit madcap and out of the ordinary for an Alleyn mystery. One might object to Ricky being placed in the middle of this, but I recall that Marsh is not alone in using this device, which Elizabeth Peters uses to great effect with Ramses, Amelia’s son. It would be great to see Raoul and Alleyn team up again. But if not, then this was good fun!
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