Photo Finish (Roderick Alleyn #31), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2016 (originally published in 1980).
Summary: A New Zealand trip for Alleyn and Troy goes sideways when Isabella Sommita, a soprano and diva is murdered after she debuts a badly written opera composed by her latest love interest.
Troy has been invited to paint the portrait of famed soprano Isabella Sommita by her Aristotle Onassis-like friend, Montague Reece. It appears to have all the trappings of a romantic getaway for her and Alleyn. She has been invited to Reece’s Waihoe Lodge on a remote lake in New Zealand. Alleyn has been invited separately to “consult” on dealing with a particularly annoying member of the paparazzi, calling himself “Strix” who has managed to insinuate himself into a variety of situations where he has taken the most unflattering pictures of The Sommita. Alleyn is reluctant to go, given the penchant they have for getting mixed up in murder cases together. The deal is sealed however by his superior, who thinks he ought to go because of a vague international drug connection that The Sommita is rumored to have some association with.
The setting and the Lodge are as stunningly beautiful as Troy and Alleyn imagine. Marsh, a native New Zealander, describes the scene so vividly I could see it in my mind’s eye, and a storm section later in the book so palpably that I felt I was hearing the wind and rain pelt the Lodge. Reece has set up a well-appointed studio for Troy to use for the portrait and they are treated as guests of honor. But she will never make more than preliminary sketches.
Isabella Sommita, like many of the stage figures in Marsh’s books is full of herself, in this case the definition of diva. She is barely tolerated by her entourage, the maid Maria, her manager Ben Ruby, and the rest of the household staff including the very proper housekeeper Mrs. Bacon and the officious secretary of Mr. Reece, Ned Hanley. She has taken under her wing (and into her bed) Rupert Bartholomew, a young composer who has written a mediocre work just for her, The Alien Corn, with The Sommita playing the title role of the biblical role, complete with a climactic song that allows her to hit her famous high notes. They will debut the piece at the Waihoe Lodge with a cast of supporting singers, a music critic and Signor Beppo Lattienzo, with whom The Sommita had trained.
It’s thought that the remote location was safe from the increasingly hostile photographic intrusions of “Strix” but an incident during rehearsals, another photograph taken, suggests “Strix” is in their midst, yet he cannot be found. As the performance approaches, Rupert Bartholomew, who will conduct, begins to realize what a mess he is. He is awakening both to the poor quality of his composition and how he is in thrall to The Sommita. He tries to back out but neither Reece nor The Sommita will hear of it.
The guests arrive as a storm is setting in. The production comes off, with The Sommita giving her all to a very poor piece. As everyone is applauded, Bartholomew summons the courage to apologize for his shoddy work. The Sommita is infuriated and storms off to her bedroom while Rupert faints. When The Sommita doesn’t appear, Reece covers for her and asks Maria to take her a warm drink. A scream follows. The Sommita is lying spread-eagle on her bed–dead. A stiletto has been driven into her heart (post-mortem as it turns out) with a photograph taken earlier in the day pinned to her.
The storm has risen and most of the guests, save the performers and a few special guests have just gotten out in time. The rest are stuck there and the lake is so turbulent that the police cannot come. So Alleyn reluctantly takes charge and does his best to secure the crime scene and to collect evidence while it is fresh with the assistance of Dr Carmichael, even though he has no authority other than Mr. Reece’s permission.
Was it “Strix”? Or Rupert, who had a key to the bedroom as her lover? Or someone else in the household? And does a book Alleyn found in the Lodge library describing a vendetta between two New York crime families in which a young woman dies under similar circumstances have anything to do with the case? By the time the authorities arrive, Alleyn has figured out who “Strix” is and is ready, with Inspector Hazelmere to resolve the case.
I have to admit that having read a number of Marsh’s works, this felt a bit formulaic to me–a stage personality, a remote house party, a performance with the death of a lead, an extreme weather event leaving Alleyn in charge. Even so, the final denouement had some twists that caught me by surprise. And I have to admit that I have always enjoyed the New Zealand settings the best. This work was the next to last published in her life, two years before she died, showing her still quite competent in re-mixing the standard devices into an engaging story.