Death of a Fool (Roderick Alleyn #19), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2014 (originally published in 1957).
Summary: A fertility dance culminating in a ritual beheading of a fool, followed by his resurrection, ends with the fool having been truly decapitated.
It’s the winter solstice in South Mardian. Time for a ritual fertility dance known as the Mardian Morris Sword Dance. The dance is held among the ruins of Mardian Castle, in front of a home still inhabited by 94 year old Dame Alice Mardian, sharp as a tack, and her great niece and spinster, Dulcie Mardian. For generations, the core of the cast has been the Andersen family, who operated the Copse Forge, a blacksmithery in the nearby town, on a road soon to be turned into a thoroughfare. Presently, there is old William Andersen and his five sons. Andersen plays “The Fool” in the dance while the five enact a sword dance that culminates in a feigned beheading of the Fool, who conceals himself in a depression behind the Dolmen stone and subsequently rises from the dead at the conclusion of the ritual.
Three others are involved. Ralph Stanes, son of the rector and Dame Alice’s great nephew plays “the Betty,” a bisexual figure in a monstrous dress known to envelope young boys or girls. Crack, the Hobby Horse is played by Simon Begg, whose big role is to chase young maidens like Camilla Campion, the love interest of Ralph Stanes, into his arms. All of this is accompanied by the fiddling of Dr. Otterly, the town’s GP, who assiduously observes the players.
There is another key character, Mrs Bünz, a German immigrant who had fled Nazi oppression, and was taken up with researching folk rituals, of which the Mardian Morris Sword Dance is an outstanding example. She spies on rehearsals, tries to wheedle information from the players, and is resolutely resisted by William Anderson, until he is murdered.
As you might guess if you are a reader of Marsh, the staged murder actually occurs. When the Fool fails to rise at the climax, an investigation finds him decapitated, lying in the depression behind the rock. The local authorities, unused to dealing with such a horror, call in Scotland Yard and Alleyn, Fox, Bailey, and Thompson arrive forthwith.
The interviews of witnesses present a number of suspects. Anderson’s sons clearly are conspiring to conceal something. Ernest, the youngest and subject to epileptic fits and considered to “not be playing with a full deck” is the lead suspect. He wielded the “Whiffler” that beheads the Fool and he had an angry set to with his father over the putting down of a dog. He’d also beheaded an aggressive goose earlier in the day at Mardian Castle. And yet William Anderson was seen to crouch behind the Dolmen stone afterwards, very much alive. Chris, another son, wants to marry a village girl, Trixie, known to be “generous” with her favors, including with Ralph Stanes, and disapproved by William. Several of the boys, encouraged by Simon Beggs, a former officer barely surviving running a service station, wants to go in with the boys to turn the forge into a service station by the new thoroughfare. Ralph wants to marry Camilla Campion, William’s granddaughter. William is opposed because of Ralph’s previous dalliance and lets him known by asking Ralph to draw up a will with a bequest to Camilla if she doesn’t marry Ralph. And what is the real deal with Mrs. Bünz?
The big problem was that The Fool was very much alive after the pretend decapitation and very dead at the end of the play, yet the accounts of all the witnesses, including those who could see behind the stone, indicate no point at which he was attacked. So how did he die and who was his murderer? In the end, Alleyn resorts to a re-enactment to see if the murderer will be revealed.
Like many of her stories, there is “theatre,” which serves as the setting of a murder, but I thought her plotting was genius and found myself uncertain up to the end. The female characters, from crusty and imperious Dame Alice to the two young women, Camilla and Trixie, clearly upstage the men, as does the eccentric Mrs. Bünz. I also found it fascinating that Dr. Otterly seems to work more closely, and even conspiratorially, with Alleyn than the members of his investigative team, who remain in the background for the most part. All in all, I thought this, not among the very best, but certainly in the top ranks of Marsh’s Alleyn books. The use of a fertility dance in an English village was an unusual and fascinating plot choice.