Review: Tied Up in Tinsel

Tied Up in Tinsel (Roderick Alleyn #27), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015 (Originally published in 1972).

Summary: Hilary Bill-Talsman is the subject of a Troy portrait and host of a Christmas house party that includes a Druid Pageant, marred when the chief Druid disappears. Alleyn arrives from overseas just in time to solve the mystery.

Hilary Bill-Talsman, an entrepreneur and nouveaux riche is rehabilitating an old manor house, Halberds, to which Troy has been invited to paint his portrait, and if he can persuade her, his fiancée, Cressida Tottenham. The holidays are approaching, Alleyn is away on assignment, and Hilary has persuaded Troy to stay for the Christmas pageant on a Druid theme, along with his house guests, Colonel Fleaton Forrester, Hilary’s uncle and his wife, along with their “man” Moult, formerly under the Colonel’s command, Bert Smith, an expert on antiques, and the aforementioned Cressida.

It’s an interesting lot, to be sure, but even more interesting is the household staff, all former murderers who have done their time. Staffing a manor house in the 1970’s, when this is set, is difficult. Hilary covers this with his social experiment. Particularly disturbing is Nigel, whose mental state is questionable, seeing “sinners” behind every bush, as it were. Yet the house seems to run smoothly, they get along and the only conflicts are between them and Moult, who has a streak of unpleasantness mixed with being prone to excess, and Cressida, who is averse to Cooke the cook’s cats.

Colonel Forrester is set to play the chief Druid, the counterpart of Father Christmas, whose appearance with gifts is the climax of the pageant. But he has a propensity for spells, and worked up as he is, he succumbs to one. Unbeknownst to everyone except for Cressida who helps him with his costume, Moult takes his place and pulls it off. Only after helping him remove the beard in a cloakroom, does Cressida inform Mrs. Forrester of the Colonel’s indisposition. Only afterwards do they notice that Moult has disappeared. A search of the house and grounds is made but he is nowhere to be found.

It’s at this juncture that Alleyn, having finished up an overseas assignment early, turns up, advises contacting the authorities, and stays on to help with the investigation. It turns into a murder investigation, when he spots four of the house staff moving a large box in the middle of the night, a box that contains Moult’s body. Yet despite the protests of the guests, Alleyn is not inclined to suspect the former murderers.

Marsh is a master of the “murder at a house party” genre but I have to admit that this one wasn’t my favorite. It takes half the book to get to the murder, a lot of stage setting, a series of malicious messages and pranks intended to incriminate one or more of the staff. And the identity of the murderer did not come as a surprise, only the motive. At the same time, the setting of the mood during Troy’s walk in the country and the later search during the storm, the description of the pageant, and the fascinating character of Hilary were all masterfully done.

This was one of two Marsh novels to be nominated for an Edgar Award, the other being Killer Dolphin. I’m not sure I understand the nomination of this book, which I did not find nearly as well-written as Killer Dolphin or some of her other works. It may just have been the year.

Review: Death in a White Tie

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.

The Reviews: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series

I recently finished Louise Penny’s The Madness of Crowds, the seventeenth in her Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, and the most recently published. For the moment, there are no more Gamache novels to read, unless I go back and re-read the series. This has quite simply been one of the best series I’ve read. While Penny’s books are often favored by women readers, I’ve found myself drawn by the strong male characters, especially Armand and Jean Guy. Particularly, I want to grow up to be like Armand! Equally, I find myself deeply appreciating the strong and diverse female characters–Reine Marie, Clara, Myrna, Isabelle Lacoste, and of course, Ruth (and Rosa!). Like so many readers, I want to live in Three Pines, or foster the kind of Three Pines community where I live (perhaps one of Penny’s hopes). I also have been provoked to thought, and not a little self-examination, by Penny’s insight that a murder often begins many years before with a nursed grievance allowed to fester. Finally, there are Gamache’s four sentences that lead to wisdom:

I don’t know.

I need help.

I’m sorry.

I was wrong.

The older I get, the more I find myself saying these things and I find myself looking back at my younger self and wish I’d learned this wisdom sooner.

I thought it would be fun to create a page with all my Gamache reviews. While I try to avoid spoilers in the reviews, those of subsequent books may give away plot details you’d rather discover for yourself if you haven’t read the previous ones. But if you are like me and want to go back and remember, this might prove helpful. I’ve just included publication info, a brief summary, and a link to the full review.

Still Life (Chief Inspector Gamache #1), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2005.

Summary: The suspicious death of Jane Neal a day after her painting is accepted into an art show brings Gamache and his team to Three Pines, and to the grim conclusion that someone in this small community is a murderer. Review

A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Gamache #2), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2006.

Summary: An unliked but aspiring author comes to Three Pines and is murdered in front of a crowd at a curling match yet no one sees how it happened. Review

The Cruelest Month (Chief Inspector Gamache #3), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2007.

Summary: Gamache returns to Three Pines to solve a murder during a seance at the old Hadley House while forces within the Surete’ (and on his team) plot his downfall to avenge the Arnot case. Review

A Rule Against Murder (Chief Inspector Gamache #4), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2008.

Summary: The Gamache’s getaway to a peaceful lodge is interrupted, first by an unloving family reunion, and then by the death of one of the family, crushed under a statue. Meanwhile, the naming of a child forces Gamache to face his own family history. Review

The Brutal Telling (Chief Inspector Gamache #5), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2009.

Summary: The body of an unknown man is found in the bistro of Gabri and Olivier, and Olivier is the chief suspect! Review

Bury Your Dead (Chief Inspector Gamache #6), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2010.

Summary: Gamache and Beauvoir are on leave after an attempt to rescue an agent goes terribly wrong. As each faces their own traumas they get caught up in murder investigations in Quebec City and Three Pines. Review

A Trick of the Light (Chief Inspector Gamache #7), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2012.

Summary: The vernissage for Clara’s art show is a stunning success with glowing reviews only to be spoiled when the body of her estranged childhood friend is found in her flowerbed. Review

The Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #8), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2013.

Summary: While solving a case involving the murder of a prior in a remote monastery, Gamache must confront his arch-nemesis Chief Superintendent Sylvain Françoeur. Review

How the Light Gets In (Chief Inspector Gamache #9), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Press, 2013.

Summary: The murder of the last Ouellet quintuplet, a former client and friend of Myrna’s brings Gamache back to Three Pines which serves as a hidden base of operations as Sylvain Francoeur’s efforts to destroy Gamache comes to a head. Review

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Gamache #10), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur, 2015.

Summary: Gamache’s peaceful retirement is interrupted when Peter Morrow fails to return as agreed a year after his separation from Clara and they embark on a search taking them to a desolate corner of Quebec. Review

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Gamache #11), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: A young boy from Three Pines, prone to fantastic tales, reports seeing a big gun with a strange symbol, and then is found dead, setting off a search for a murderer, and an effort to thwart a global threat. Review, Second Review

A Great Reckoning (Chief Inspector Gamache #12), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: Gamache returns to the Sûreté as Commander of its Academy, and finds himself at the center of a murder investigation of one of its corrupt professors. Review

Glass Houses (Chief Inspector Gamache #13), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2017.

Summary: A mysterious figure robed in black, the murder of a woman found in those robes, a confession, and a trial, during which Gamache has made choices of conscience that could cost lives and save many. Review

Kingdom of the Blind (Chief Inspector Gamache #14), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2018.

Summary: Gamache, Myrna, and Benedict, a young building maintenance worker who hopes to be a builder are named as liquidators of the estate of a cleaning woman while Amelia Choquet, caught with drugs, is expelled from the Academy to the streets as a powerful and lethal drug is about to hit. Review

A Better Man (Chief Inspector Gamache #15), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2019.

Summary: Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste are together again, searching for a missing girl amid rising floods and a flood of social media attacks against Gamache and the art of Clara Morrow. Review

All the Devils Are Here (Chief Inspector Gamache #16), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2020.

Summary: A family visit of the Gamaches to children in Paris suddenly becomes an investigation into the attempted murder of Stephen Horowitz, Armand’s godfather, and the murder of a close associate, and will put the Gamaches in great peril. Review

The Madness of Crowds (Chief Inspector Gamache #17), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2021.

Summary: A Christmas assignment to provide security for a professor proposing mercy killing leads to a murder investigation in Three Pines. Review

The most recent novel in this series envisions what it is like to emerge from the pandemic. One thing I would say is that this series has been one of the things that got me through the pandemic. My review of the first volume was posted on April 2, 2020, less than a month after the world locked down. The most recent posted June 13, 2022, a bit over two years later. Pandemic has morphed into endemic and the new normal is a scarier world of war in Ukraine, inflation, gun violence, and political discord stretching from Sri Lanka to the United States. Amid all the murders (both in the real world and the books), the Gamache series reminds me of the goodness that remains, a goodness worth fighting and resisting for as well as celebrating in our daily lives. And there is one more goodness, at least…Louise Penny is still writing and book 18, A World of Curiosities, is expected in late 2022. When I get the chance to read it, and any subsequent numbers, it and they will be added to the list!

Review: Dead Water

Dead Water (Roderick Alleyn #23), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015 (originally published in 1963).

Summary: A spring on an island celebrated for its healing powers becomes the site of the murder.

Wally Trehern is the laughing stock of his school, what with the warts all over his hand. He lives on a small island, connected at low tide by a causeway to the English coast, making his ostracism even more painful. One day, he flees to a spring and sees a lady dressed in green who bids him wash his hands in the spring. Miraculously his warts disappear. Word spreads. The doctor, Bob Mane, the teacher, Jenny Williams, and the minister, Reverend Carstairs are supportive but cautious. Others are less so. Elspeth Cost, a spinster owner of a gift shop claims that the spring cured her asthma. Major Barrimore and his wife Margaret, owners of the island hotel stand to benefit, as do the Treherns.

Two years later, the island has been transformed into a tourist attraction–the hotel spruced up, the gift shop selling statues of the Green Lady, and the Treherns setting up a museum. The spring is gated and admission charged. Elspeth Cost even plans a Green Lady festival, creates tacky poetry for the occasion. It all works. Tourists and cure seekers come. Some claim cures.

But Emily Pride disapproves of the whole enterprise. She has inherited the island from her sister, and she is troubled by the falsely raised hopes and the commercialization of the spring and the island taking place. She communicates her intent to close it down and plans a visit. And the threats begin. She mentions it to Alleyn, who she had taught his French. He’s on holiday but when the threats intensify and she is injured by a rock thrown and endangered by a trip wire strung by the ledge overlooking the spring, where she was accustomed to sit, holding her black “brolly.” Alleyn decides he must interrupt his holiday to look after her and try to get her off the island.

She agrees to let the festival proceed though it is routed with rain. The next morning Miss Pride posts notices early at the spring about her intent to close the enterprise down amid another rain. An hour later, Alleyn is out walking by the spring when he spies a body face down along with a black brolly.

The resolution of the murder hinges on the classic devices of crime fiction: timelines, alibis, and the secrets and motives of the people who could be suspects–everyone from Wally Trehern to Major Barrimore. The climax is exciting with Alleyn pursuing the murderer and engaging in a struggle on a launch amid a rip-roaring storm.

Sometimes, Marsh’s characters can seem stock, as do some in this case like the minister and Wally’s drunken mother. Emily Pride is a stubbornly delightful eighty-something with attitude, Elspeth Cost is a combination entrepreneur and sexually frustrated dingbat. There is a heartwarming romance subplot between Wally’s caring teacher Jenny Williams and Patrick Barrimore, the innkeeper’s son. All the elements of a good story are here and come together well.

Review: Enter a Murderer

Enter a Murderer (Roderick Alleyn #2), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2012 (originally published in 1935).

Summary: Invited to see a play with his sidekick Bathgate, Alleyn actually witnesses the murder he will investigate.

Nigel Bathgate is friends with the lead actor in a play at the unicorn and receives two tickets to a performance. His friend, and lead partner in crime investigation, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn is free and joins him. Before the play, they visit the lead actor, Felix Gardner and witness tensions within the cast as Arthur Subornadier barges into a conversation with Gardner and actress Stephanie Vaughn, a lovers’ triangle with Subornadier the jilted lover. We also learn that Subornadier had threatened the theatre owner, Jacob Saint with blackmail to get the lead part. Are you getting the picture that Subornadier is not a very likable character. Turns out he has offended most of the cast and crew.

During the climactic scene, the character played by Subornadier loads a gun (supposedly with dummy bullets) quarrels with Gardner’s character. Gardner gets the gun, fires and kills Subornadier as the stage manager fires a blank shot. Only Gardner really kills Subornadier, and Alleyn sees it all and calls in his crew to investigate. Quickly, they figure out the murder is the one who substitute real bullets for the dummies that were in the top drawer of a desk during a short time when the stage was blacked out. Attention focuses on various characters including Jacob Saint, who is eventually arrested, and Albert Hickson, the property manager who was responsible for the bullets–until Hickson turns up dead while Saint is in jail.

The climax comes when the actors return to the theatre to re-enact their movements in the final scene. In the end the murderer self-exposes, the very person who Alleyn had written down for his newswriting sidekick, Bathgate. And so ends the first of Marsh’s murder mysteries set in a theatre–a favorite location.

This is early Alleyn. He and Bathgate are still learning to trust each other. Alleyn seems a bit rougher around the edges than in later novels, and without Troy in the picture, suggestively returns the attentions of lead actress Stephanie Vaughn, who doesn’t seem to mind gathering men around her. At the same time, the trademark qualities of Alleyn emerge, his quiet, commanding character that marshals the efforts of his team, including Bathgate and his focus on details and not appearances until the murderer is revealed.

This was a quick read and great fun with an unexpected twist at the end–all the ingredients for a good mystery, and for one just beginning the series, an indication of the good things to come with thirty more of these to go!

Review: Death and the Dancing Footman

Death and the Dancing Footman (Roderick Alleyn #11), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012 (originally published in 1941).

Summary: A staged house-party amid a snowstorm consisting of mutual enemies ends in a death and a suicide that Alleyn must sort out.

Now doesn’t this sound like fun? Gather a group of people who despise each other, only they do not know that their enemies will be present. Then mix them up for a weekend and see what drama results. Add a blizzard that snows them in, allowing no escape, and what do you have. Jonathan Royal of Highfold Manner thinks he has created the perfect drama for his playwright friend, Aubrey Mandrake. Events will sadly unfold otherwise.

Royal has invited Sandra Compline, a wealthy but disfigured widow, and her two sons, William and Nicholas. Nicholas is the playboy, the “flash” one who attracts the ladies, William, the diligent elder son. Nicholas is his mother’s favorite. William brings along his fiance’, Chloris Wynne, who had been engaged to Nicholas but couldn’t abide his skirt chasing. Sandra disapproves of Chloris because she broke the engagement to her beloved Nicholas. Lady Hersey Amblington is a distant cousin of Jonathan who owns a beauty salon. Jonathan has also invited her rival, Madame Elise Lisse, who has been stealing Lady Amblington’s cousins. Completing the number is Dr. Francis Hart, an accomplished plastic surgeon, who accompanied Madame Lisse and appears romantically connected to her. Under a slightly different name, Dr. Hart many years earlier was the young surgeon whose mistake left Sandra Compline’s face permanently disfigured.

Things begin badly despite Jonathan’s ministrations as Nicholas pays undue attention to Madame Lisse, enflaming Dr. Hart. Later, in a table game, Nicholas receives an extra game sheet with a threatening warning. Later in the evening Nicholas accepts a not-so-friendly bet from his brother William involving an early morning dip in the outdoor pool in the winter cold despite mother’s fears for his heart. Mandrake goes to witness and is pushed by someone from behind into the deep end of the pool. He was wearing a cape similar to Nicholas, and Nicholas and others believe it was meant that he be pushed into the deep end, where he couldn’t swim. Having received a threat and seen his friend in the drink, he tries to leave in the snowstorm to no avail. Then later in the day, after a rendezvous with Madame Lisse in her room, Nicholas returns to his own to be struck on the arm, narrowly missing his head, with a brass Buddha set atop the door as a booby trap. Alibis point the finger at the jealous Dr. Hart.

Hart separates from the company, going to the “boudoir” and returning to his rooms. Shortly before 10 pm, Nicholas and William talk in the smoking room. Nicholas leaves William alone, joining others in the adjacent library. They ask William to turn on the war news. It’s early and a rousing dance song, plays on the radio, annoying Hart in the adjacent boudoir so that he goes to bed. A few minutes later, Lady Amblington takes a drink in to find William dead, the back of his head bashed in with one of the weapons Jonathan Royal’s family had collected that had been hanging on the wall.

Once again, it is believed to have been a case of mistaken identity with Nicholas the target. Despite his denials, most believe it is Dr. Hart, even with his heroic but futile efforts to save Sandra Compline, who has taken a fatal dose of sedatives and dies, leaving a note to her son Nicholas.

Perhaps the most edge of the seat part of the story is the attempt of Mandrake, Chloris Wynne, and James Bewling, and outside hand, to make their way to Great Chipping, where Alleyn and Troy are staying with the rector, whose portrait Troy is rendering. Bereft for a time of his team of Fox, Thompson, and Bailey, who eventually arrive, Alleyn begins to investigate the scene and interview the party. Surprisingly, one of the most interesting interviews is with Thomas, a young footman who danced outside the library when the music came on. Who he saw and didn’t were very important to the case as well as giving us our title.

This story seemed to take a lot of time to develop and the endless tabulating of alibis by the guests, who perhaps had nothing else to distract them from their enemies than to play amateur detective, seemed to drag out this story. Alleyn doesn’t come on the scene until two-thirds of the way through. Perhaps this was intended to simulate the interminable day of all these murder attempts in this household of enemies shut up with each other, but it seemed a bit drawn out.

There was a lesson in all this. Don’t try this at home. Don’t play with people’s lives, thinking it will be amusing and come out fine. People with a settled enmity may be civil, but with the right provocation, it can mean murder. That everyone in this party could be a suspect says something. Even the best of us are capable of murder.

Review: Kingdom of the Blind

Kingdom of the Blind (Chief Inspector Gamache #14), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2018.

Summary: Gamache, Myrna, and Benedict, a young building maintenance worker who hopes to be a builder are named as liquidators of the estate of a cleaning woman while Amelia Choquet, caught with drugs, is expelled from the Academy to the streets as a powerful and lethal drug is about to hit.

[Spoiler alert: Because this is a review of a book in a series, some details in this review may be “spoilers” if you have not read previous numbers in the series.]

Armand Gamache is on suspension for his highly irregular (and ultimately effective) operation described in the last novel. It meant looking the other way on a drug shipment, some of which is about to hit the streets of Montreal. The drug is the highly lethal carfentanyl. He has admitted to it all, but the hope is that he’ll be restored to his position of Chief Superintendent. Interrogations of his son-in-law, Guy de Beauvoir, who is now Chief Inspector of Homicide, suggests they are preparing to scapegoat Gamache, and Beauvoir has to decide whether he is going to save his own job or remain at the side of his father-in-law. Meanwhile, Gamache is determined to recover the drugs.

All this is in the background of the two plot lines in this novel. The first comes when Gamache learns he has been named as a liquidator (a kind of executor) of the will of Bertha Baumgartner, a cleaning woman who had lived nearby and worked for some of the family in Three Pines and called herself “The Baronness.” Myrna Landers, the bookstore owner, is also a liquidator. The third is a quirky but seemingly pleasant young man, Benedict, a handyman in his apartment building in Montreal, who hopes to work as a contractor. None knows why they have been named. They meet the notary at Bertha’s derelict home amid a snow storm. They are not the heirs, who are The Baronness’s three children: Anthony, Caroline, and Hugo. It turns out she has left each a huge fortune and properties in Europe, although all this seems fanciful.

Things take an interesting turn when Benedict returns to the snow-laden house. He had been staying with the Gamaches while his truck was towed to get decent snow tires, which Gamache offered to pay for. Alarmed, because of the condition of the house, Gamache goes after him as does Myrna. They find the house collapsed, apparently from the weight of the snow. They find and, after a harrowing further collapse, manage to rescue Benedict, but not before they discover that someone else had been there, dead in the rubble. It turns out to be Anthony Baumgartner. The nature of his wounds, a crushed skull, point to him being dead before the collapse–murdered. As Beauvoir, Lacoste, who is recovering from a severe wound, and a forensic accountant investigate the death, Gamache digs into the will, which leads to the discovery of a long-unresolved family dispute in Austria. The will of Bertha Baumgartner might not be all that fanciful.

Amelia Choquet has been found in possession of drugs. The director of the academy consults with Gamache, who declines to give her another chance. In her third year, she is expelled, though not criminally charged. She returns to her old apartment and the streets of Montreal with a vengeance, fueled by anger at Gamache. She is determined to find the carfentanyl and gain control of its distribution, calling it “Gamache” out of spite and using her knowledge of the streets and academy training to build a network of junky dealers. But first she has to find who has it. As she looks, she awakes from having passed out with a strange Sharpie inscription on her arm, “David 1/4.” She’s not the only one with this inscription, some of whom are found dead. She relentlessly searches for “David,” thinking he must have the carfentanyl. Unbeknownst to her, Gamache has agents secretly tailing her. And looking for a little girl in a red tuque who keeps showing up and may be in danger.

There are some funny sidelights, such as Honore’s first word, a fascinating bond between an elderly financial adviser and friend of the Gamache’s and Ruth, and a new relationship for Myrna. Beauvoir’s dilemma creates, at least for him, a new round of wondering how far he can trust Gamache and if Gamache has told him all that is going on. And we learn that Gamache, as well as other characters in the story, have hidden things. Once again, Gamache pursues methods that are “out of the moral box” with the justification of a greater good.

I find myself wondering if this will catch him up, if these choices will destroy the decency, integrity, and kindness of this man. He has been up against people who don’t think the moral rules of the rest of society apply to them. Could he become one of them? I certainly hope not, but Penny’s development of Gamache in this way opens both intriguing and frightening possibilities. And she leaves me wondering, what will happen to Choquet?

Review: A Grave Mistake

A Grave Mistake (Roderick Alleyn #30), Ngaio Marsh. New York, Felony & Mayhem Press, 2016 (originally published in 1978).

Summary: A wealthy widow in a small English village dies of an apparent suicide at an exclusive spa, but clues point to murder with a circle of suspects with motives.

The Honorable Sybil Foster of Quintern Place in the village of Upper Quintern is hosting a gathering at her home that serves to introduce a number of characters who will figure in this mystery. Verity Preston, another wealthy resident and playwright, is godmother to Sybil’s daughter Prunella, who we learn is romantically involved with Gideon Markos, an accomplished and well-mannered suitor, the son of nouveaux rich Nikolas Markos, the occupant of Mardling Manor, and an owner of a Troy painting (Troy is Chief Superintendent Alleyn’s wife and accomplished artist), who has his sights set on Quintern Place.

The gathering is broken up when the gardener, McBride, is noticed to have not moved for some time. He has died at his work, which seem to trigger a number of new arrivals. The first, turning up in the village shortly after McBride’s death is Bruce Gardener, who true to his name, is a gardener, who rapidly endears himself to Mrs. Foster, and Verity as well, despite his suspiciously thick Scottish accent. We learn later he was the close companion of Maurice Carter, Sybil’s first husband, who died in a wartime bombing that marked the disappearance of a rare stamp that had been in his possession but was never found.

At a dinner party Nikolas Markos introduces Dr. Basil Schramm, the new house physician at nearby Greengages Hotel. Verity realizes he is Basil Smythe, a student of her father’s, with whom she had an affair until he ditched her. She keeps her own counsels and gives him a wide berth. Completing the ensemble is Claude Carter, Sybil’s son by Maurice, a ne’er do well who seemed to be in perpetual debt and just one step ahead of the law.

All this is enough to send Sybil, who might be characterized as “high strung” to take the cure at Greengages, only to fall under the attentions of Dr. Schramm, provoking the jealousy of Sister Jackson, his assistant. Things come to a head when Prunella asks Verity’s help with her mother. She and Gideon want to get engaged and ask Verity to prepare their way with Sybil. They all go to Greengages, Verity first. To no avail. Sybil wants Prunella to marry John Swingletree, the son of a peer. Gideon exerts his charms but Sybil wants to be escorted to her room, where she remains the rest of the day. That night, about 9 p.m., Dr. Schramm looks in on her when her TV is heard blaring after the hour she usually turns in. She is in her bed, dead from an apparent overdose of barbiturates.

Chief Superintendent Alleyn is assigned to investigate, to ensure there was no foul play. And soon, he finds cause to believe there is–unswallowed pills on the back of her tongue, a pillow beside the bed with a facial impression and tears suggesting it was bitten. Then there is the new will, donating half her fortune to Dr. Schramm, who we learn may not be a doctor at all, if Prunella does not marry Swingletree. Plus there is a tidy bequest to Bruce Gardener.

Needless to say, there is a raft of suspects, chief of whom is Claude Carter, who under the guise of an electrician, took flowers left for Sybil up to her room where he was to “replace” a light bulb that plainly wasn’t replaced. Then Carter disappears. Three locations figure prominently–the room at Greengages where Sybil died, a heart at Quintern Place, and the graveyard behind the village church, where the murderer, and more will be uncovered.

This is one of Marsh’s later works, number 30 in the series, and by this time Alleyn is Chief Superintendent. It was delightful to find that, if anything, her plots were twistier, even in this cozy village. As in other works, it seems that only a few of her characters are fully drawn, the others remaining caricatures. In this case, it is Alleyn and Verity Preston, and oddly enough, Basil Schramm who are the most interesting and complex. The others seem to fill a role.

It seems curious to me that so many of Marsh’s books are set among the upper crust, who rarely come out looking good, aside from a few of the more circumspect, like Verity Preston. Alleyn also is from among the gentry, and one wonders if his presence reflects something of a conscience that offsets those behaving badly, either trivially or immorally or as outright villains. Is there social commentary behind the cozy mystery? Perhaps, but at there is also a well-crafted story that still reads well nearly fifty years later.

Review: Artists in Crime

Artists in Crime, (Roderick Alleyn #6), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012 (originally published in 1937).

Summary: A murder occurs at the studio of artist Agatha Troy, who Alleyn had met on his voyage back to England; the beginning in fits and starts of a romance while Alleyn seeks to solve the crime.

It isn’t a promising beginning. An untimely interruption onboard ship followed by a brusque brushoff. Nevertheless artist Agatha Troy paints a striking likeness of Alleyn which he presents to his mother upon his return to England. It turns out Lady Alleyn lives but a few miles from Agatha Troy’s home and studio Tatter’s End House in Bossicote. Troy has turned the back garden into a studio for students who want to train under her, living at her house.

One of the students, Watt Hatchett, is a rough-around-the-edges Australian Troy has brought back and is sponsoring, recognizing his talent. The rest are a rag-tag collection of characters. Francis Ormerin is an aloof student from Paris. Cedric Malmsley is a bearded poseur, pretending to more talent than he has yet to evidence. Phillida Lee is a country girl turned Bohemian. Basil Pilgrim has the (mis)fortune to be the son of a strict religionist peer. Valmai Seacliff is the beauty who knows it, drawing the men to her like flies. Katti Bostock is the gruff but accomplished painter who is Troy’s roommate. She hired the beautiful but temperamental model, Sonia Gluck who is romantically involved with a sculptor, Garcia, extremely talented but without morals.

Alleyn’s reunion with his mother is cut short when Sonia is found murdered. About a week earlier, there was an experiment to make the scene she was posing, in which the figure posed has been impaled on a knife driven through a throne, concealed by a drape. A couple of students drove an actual knife through the draped seat so that it would stab the figure in the heart. It was all forgotten until everyone returned from weekend activities to set up the scene and resume their work. Sonia, who had a hard time keeping a pose and has incurred the wrath of nearly everyone at some point, is forcefully positioned by Valmai. She cries out, jerks, and passes out. When others come to help make her comfortable, they discover that she is impaled on the knife, hidden under the drape. And she dies. And Garcia has disappeared, supposedly on a walking tour.

All of them, including Troy are suspects. It is obvious there is a chemistry between Alleyn and Troy, yet the awkward questions and investigation that must occur do not provide the most conducive atmosphere for a romance. What is striking is that Troy is portrayed as strong, self-sufficient and self-possessed. It is Alleyn who comes off awkward, even apologetic. This is very different from, say, Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey (although Harriet is also a strong character).

But this doesn’t prevent Alleyn and his team of Fox, Bailey, and his journalist and Watson figure, Nigel Bathgate, from uncovering the truth. Young Pilgrim isn’t as pure as he seems. Malmsley is an opium user who isn’t above copying a famous scene, pretending it is his own work. Bathgate discovers through a sometime roommate of Sonia’s the sordid game she and Garcia have been playing. And who was it who had a late night meeting with Garcia? And Marsh lays a few surprises at the end, just when we think we know who the real killer is.

This “queen of crime” gives us a strong female counterpart to Alleyn, and casts aspersions on the gender pretensions of others. The portrayal of Valmai shows a disapproval of the glamourous female and it is only as Phillida stops pretending so much to be Bohemian that she becomes interesting. The unrefined Watt Hatchett, the only male favorably portrayed, helps bring this out. Ormerin, Malmsley, Pilgrim, and Garcia all come off badly. Today, we would call her best characters authentic, the ones who ring true.

The plot is straightforward, with enough twists to keep you on your toes, the characters interesting, the repartee between Alleyn and Bathgate sparkles, and Marsh leaves us all wondering whether and how the romance with Troy will go.

Review: Glass Houses

Glass Houses (Chief Inspector Gamache #13), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2017.

Summary: A mysterious figure robed in black, the murder of a woman found in those robes, a confession, and a trial, during which Gamache has made choices of conscience that could cost lives and save many.

A woman is on trial for a murder in Three Pines and Gamache is the key prosecution witness. The previous fall, a mysterious, black-cloaked figure appears on the village green. Everyone is disturbed, including four friends visiting Myrna, friends who have often visited, but never this late in the fall. They look to Gamache, now Chief Superintendent to do something, but the figure has broken no law other than stand there and stare toward the Bistro, especially toward a dishwasher and aspiring cook, Anton. Feeling runs high, with Gamache intervening to prevent bodily harm. The next morning, the figure which they have discovered is a cobrador, or “conscience,” is gone.

Then Reine-Marie discovers the body in a black robe and mask in the basement of the village chapel. The body turns out to be that of Katie Evans, one of the four visiting Myrna. Chief Inspector LaCoste and her team come to investigate. A key detail is a bat, the murder weapon, found near the body. Yet Reine-Marie, who notices everything did not mention seeing that bat. Subsequently a baker, Jacqueline, goes to Gamache’s house and makes a confession. Indeed, the evidence points toward her. Except for the discrepancy of the bat. But why the cobrador, and why did Katie end up the one murdered?

It is at this trial that Gamache is testifying, confronted by a prosecutor, Zalmanowitz, who is hostile toward his own witness. A rookie judge, assigned to the trial, begins to sense something is up. A key moment in the trial comes when Gamache testifies about the bat. He perjures himself, something we can never imagine him doing.

What is going on? It all has to do with a desperate strategy Gamache has set in motion around the time of the murder. It raises profound questions of conscience. May the law be disobeyed for the sake of a higher law, and a potentially greater good? Can this be done when it will likely cost the loss of lives, at least some of which could have been prevented, but at the expense of a greater victory? And what if such a strategy implicates the prosecutor, the judge, Jean Guy, and the top leadership of the Surete, as well as himself?

Aside from these weighty questions for which Gamache bears the weight of decision and responsibility, there are other sparkling aspects of this story. We witness the growing bond between Jean Guy and Ruth Zardo, almost his alter ego, and the sheer courage and compassion of Ruth in the climactic scene. We see Clara’s artistic genius turned to the figures of Three Pines and we wonder when she will paint Gamache. And in the presence of the cobrador, we see the residents confess to each other their moral failures, aware that the light of conscience usually reveals something unseemly in all of us. As is Gamache, aware of the momentous choices he has made that will rest on his conscience.