Review: Vintage Murder

Vintage Murder (Roderick Alleyn # 5), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012 (first published in 1937).

Summary: Alleyn falls in with a theatre company while in New Zealand and discovers that neither murder nor police work take a vacation.

New Zealand. Trains. Theatres. Murders in Alleyn’s presence. It would be an interesting trivia question for Alleyn lovers of how many novels in this series have one or more of these elements as a significant plot element. This story has them ALL.

Alleyn is on holiday, riding across New Zealand on a train. The other people in his car are the assorted cast members and others associated with the Carolyn Dacres Comedy Company, a touring company. He surveys the company, many of whom are sleeping but a few are awake including a seatmate, leading many Hailey Hambledon and a restless young actor, Courtney Broadhead, who gambles more than is good for him. Alleyn dozes, awakened with the awareness that someone had walked past him. Shortly after, he is sought out by Hambledon, who informs him that someone had tried to kill Alfred Meyer by pushing him off a platform between cars. He listens to the story, advises contact with the authorities, which Meyer, the proprietor of the company, is reluctant to pursue. Then word of another crime intrudes as Valerie Gaynes, a novice actress taken on as a favor reports that a large sum of money in a folder in her luggage had been stolen. Alleyn looks, while asking everyone to keep his true identity secret.

They arrive at their destination in Middleton without further excitement. We meet the various characters and overhear a conversation between Hambledon and Carolyn suggesting some sort of romantic involvement, but one she will not pursue as a Catholic who does not believe in divorce. Only if Alfred is dead would anything be possible. Broadhead settles up gambling debts while Liversidge, the other “juvenile” seems flush with funds. Ackroyd practices his acerbic wit on all and sundry. George Mason, the business manager and Meyer’s partner, seems absorbed with matters in the office. All the preparations for the show are supplemented by an after-show dinner in honor of Carolyn Dacres birthday planned by Alfred Meyer, her husband, which includes a jeroboam of champagne being lowered to the table, counterweighted with a heavy weight, which plummets to the stage at one point as the apparatus is being set up.

You see where all this is going, don’t you? Alleyn has been provided a seat at the performance, and invited to dinner. He buys a gift of a tiki, a symbol of good fortune on the advice of Maori Dr. Te Pokiha, also with the party. It is passed around for all to look at before the surprise of the night, the champagne jeroboam. When Carolyn cuts the cord holding it, the jeroboam plummets, breaking upon the head of Alfred Meyer, killing him.

Alleyn discovers the counterweight had been removed. This was no accident. But who in this tight knit cast would have done it? Could it be connected with the events on the train. Did Meyer know who stole the money. What about Hambledon who had reason to wish Meyer dead. Or perhaps Carolyn herself? The other with a financial stake was Mason, the business partner, but he was not seen leaving his office during the crucial time. Or could it have been the somewhat mysterious Maori, Dr. Te Pokiha?

Alleyn is invited to join the investigation by local authorities, enthralled by a professional text written by Alleyn and the chance to watch him up close. So goes vacation and anonymity! The investigation involves the movements of all the cast members, the layout of the theatre, what became of the tiki, and why a weight, not heavy enough for the counterbalance, was affixed to the rope after Alleyn investigated. What, if any, connection did the events on the train have to Meyer’s murder?

Marsh handles all the classic elements with style, throwing in red herrings to divert us. We wonder if Alleyn will be able to solve this in time for the troop to leave for its next performance–and what will happen with the leading lady’s husband gone? And will Alleyn get his vacation in, or merely a busman’s holiday? While not terribly imaginative, and a bit drawn out in its investigation of various cast members, I still found the denouement satisfying as well as how Marsh got there.

Review: The Nursing Home Murder

The Nursing Home Murder, Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn #3). New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2011 (originally published in 1935).

Summary: The Home Secretary collapses of acute appendicitis during a speech on a key bill against radicals and is taken to a private hospital of an old doctor friend for emergency surgery, dying under suspicious circumstances soon after the operation.

Spoiler notice: The review includes a plot summary, without giving away the conclusion.

The Home Secretary, O’Callaghan, has put the final touches on a bill against anarchists and the Prime Minister’s cabinet is ready to press it forward. It will be dangerous for O’Callaghan, who will lead the effort. People have been assassinated for less. But O’Callaghan is fighting enemies on other fronts. He is suffering from the symptoms of appendicitis but is trying to gut it out until passage of the bill. Then there is the woman he’d had a sexual liaison with. Both were approaching it with a progressive attitude, except the woman, Jane Harden, cannot. She has fallen in love and written both touchingly and threateningly in several letters. Then a doctor friend, Sir John Phillips, who runs a private hospital nearby (the “nursing home” of the title) visits, not knowing O’Callaghan is ailing, and confronts him about the affair with Jane Harden, who is his theater nurse, and with whom he is in love. Jane will not consider him, having “given herself” to O’Callaghan. The meeting concludes unsatisfactorily, Phillips warning him, “You do well to keep clear of me” and threatening if he has the opportunity to “put him out of the way.”

His hypochondriac sister Ruth tries to help, pressing on him various patent medicines from her pharmacist friend as he tries to ignore the pain and get the bill through. Lady Callaghan remains more distant, not unsympathetic but letting him do what he must. But when he gets up to make a major speech on the bill, he collapses and under Lady O’Callaghan’s direction, unaware of the recent confrontation, is taken to Dr. Phillips hospital. He diagnoses a burst appendix, requiring immediate surgery. He wants to get another surgeon but Lady O’Callaghan insists he operate.

Dr. Philips is assisted by Dr. Thoms, an eccentric anesthetist Roberts, Sister Marigold, the head nurse, Nurse Banks a gruff nurse active in communist agitation and outspoken in her antipathy for O’Callaghan, and Nurse Harden. Various injections, including hyoscine, used for abdominal pain, are given. Phillips personally prepares the hyoscine injection and administers it. The operation comes off but O’Callaghan’s pulse is weak, his condition worsens and he dies shortly after.

It was thought this was due to the neglect of the appendicitis but Lady O’Callaghan suspects foul play, having come into possession of the letters from Jane Harden and learned from O’Callaghan’s personal secretary, Jameson, that Phillips had spoken threateningly to O’Callaghan. She speaks to Alleyn, who had been handling security on a discrete basis for the Home Secretary, and he is persuaded there is credible cause for an autopsy and inquest. The coroner finds he’d received on overdose of the hyoscine, enough to easily kill him.

Beyond the obvious suspect, Dr. Phillips, Alleyn must consider a host of possibilities. Jane Harden certainly had motive. Nurse Banks hated what O’Callaghan stood for and was active in the communist party. Was she part of a plot to kill him? Roberts was also at the party meeting. Dr. Thoms happened to talk about the lethal dose of hyoscine. Was Ruth an unwitting accomplice in his death? What was in the patent medicines mixed by the pharmacist, who also happened to be part of the local communist party?

In addition to the intrepid Fox, Alleyn draws upon the help of his newspaper friend Bathgate and his girlfriend Angela, who help with a bit of undercover work at a party meeting. None of this seems to bring him closer to the killer, although Alleyn has growing suspicions, until a fluke event exposes the killer.

This is classic Marsh–a host of suspects, an effort to follow movements to see who really had motive, means, and opportunity, with a lot of cogitating with Fox and Bathgate. It can seem a bit formulaic at times, although I’ve always liked the books with Bathgate. But formulas can be like recipes, it’s the little “extras” that keep the dish from being ho-hum. The batty siater, Ruth, the crusty communist, Nurse Banks, the eccentric Roberts with his crazy theories, and the noble Roberts who we so want not to be guilty and to find love with Nurse Harden, that makes it all interesting.

Review: Spinsters in Jeopardy

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!

Review: A World of Curiosities

A World of Curiosities, Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Press, 2022.

Summary: The arrival in Three Pines of a sister and brother involved in a murder case that brought Armand and Jean Guy and the opening of a sealed room and the strange painting found within confront Gamache with two of his greatest fears.

Bricks. They are all over this story. The instrument of murder in a case that brought Armand and Jean Guy together. The means used 160 years ago to seal up a room filled with strange objects and a copy of a famous painting altered in sinister ways signifying to Gamache that an old nemesis is on the loose.

The murder case and the room summon two fears in the mind of Gamache. The murder was of a drug-addicted prostitute who prostituted her children. Jean Guy, languishing in the basement of the district detachment under a corrupt boss, is called on to assist Gamache. As the mother had deteriorated, the children took over, and then murdered the mother. With a brick. The older girl, Fiona Arsenault, confessed, but Gamache was never certain. There was a chilling something about her brother Sam, something deeply broken and disturbing. And while Sam bonded with Jean Guy, he hated Gamache for ending what he and his sister had.

Fiona, against Gamache’s wishes, went to prison. While there, he sponsored her when she discovered an aptitude for engineering. He and Reine Marie became mentors to her. Sam survived, first in a foster home, then in a variety of jobs, traveling about, becoming a strikingly handsome young man.

In the present, Myrna’s niece Harriet is graduating, as is Fiona and they are all present. Fiona, now out of prison is staying with the Gamaches. Only Sam shows up as well, staying at the B & B. The contempt for Gamache is still there, and all his fears and instincts are aroused, even as Sam wins Harriet’s heart. Myrna, in her previous life as a Montreal psychologist, had interviewed Sam. She shared Gamache’s concerns that he could be a sociopath, or worse. Jean Guy disagrees.

Converging with all this, a 160 year old letter to Billy Williams reveals the existence of a hidden room bricked up by Billy’s ancestor, a stone mason. It is connected to Myrna’s loft and could make a great extra room for Harriet. Yet the reasons for bricking up the room and why this came to Billy at this time raise suspicions. And indeed, what they find in the room is “a world of curiosities.” There is an old grimoire, a book of potions, of herbal remedies, and more, that could get a woman killed for witchcraft. There is a statue that had gone missing after a strange guest stayed at the B & B, covered with strange markings. And there is a painting, a copy of The Paston Treasure with menacing additions from the present. It is the additions that increasingly disturb Gamache, as he figures out they are meant for him.

They signal that a nemesis thought to be locked away is afoot. How did these contemporary objects get into a sealed room? Only a meticulous mind could do this, a master of disguise. But he is locked away in a high security prison. Or is he?

Two who hated Gamache. Two with access to Three Pines. Even the home of the Gamaches, endangering all he loved. They both seem to know everything about Gamache. Can he get into their heads as they have his? And can he go deeper, and walk into his fears? And will it be enough?

So much has turned on the kindness of Gamache, especially to Fiona. Early on, a mentor had cautioned him with the words of Matthew 10:36, “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” Yet the Gamaches make themselves vulnerable in their care for Fiona, their tendency to take in the needy. They’ve also done this for Amelia Chocquet, even as years ago, they did so with Jean Guy, who has tried to show kindness to Sam. So much turns in this story on whether this is weakness, foolishness, or strength.

We also see two ways and their fruit: the way of a deep bitterness and how this consumes, and the way of facing one’s brokenness, the admission of wrongs and the power of forgiveness. Armand is forced by the evil that threatens to look in and wrestle with these two ways in his own life.

All I will say about the ending of this book is that if you have a heart condition, you may want to seek your physician’s advice before reading it. This is Louise Penny at the top of her game.

Review: Swing, Brother, Swing

Swing, Brother, Jones (Inspector Alleyn #15), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012 (originally published in 1949).

Summary: An eccentric British Lord joins a swing band for a number that involves a gun, and the person at whom he shoots is actually killed with an unusual projectile–a knitting needle–right in front of Alleyn!

Lord Pastern and Baggott fits the stereotype of an eccentric English Lord. His latest craze is swing and he sponsors Breezy Bellair and His Boys as they rehearse in his ballroom for gigs at the Metronome, a swanky club. He’s so into it he even writes a piece in which he stands in for the veteran drummer, Syd Skelton. At the climax of the piece, he plans to fake the shooting of the rest of the band beginning with Carlos da Rivera, who is nearly engaged to his daughter, Félicité. He even makes an elaborate show before his wife’s niece Carlisle Wayne, of showing how he has extracted each bullet to make the blanks in the pistol.

No one likes Rivera, with the possible exception of Lord Pastern. Cecile, his wife, detests him. The band leader, Breezy Bellair, is upset with him because he is not going to continue getting him his drugs. Félicité has been dragging her feet and at a dinner before the show, broke off the relationship. Rivera didn’t help things with making a pass at Carlisle. Ned Manx, a drama critic who writes for Harmony, a tabloid-type paper had words after dinner and socked him one on the ear.

We all see it coming, don’t we? I feel like crying out, don’t go through with the gag! Breezy is nervous about it and has Syd Skelton check out the gun before the act. He see’s nothing amiss. The gun is placed under a sombrero located near the table of Lord Pastern and Baggott’s party. Conveniently, Alleyn and Troy, who is expecting (!) are at the next table. Lord Pastern and Baggott goes through with the gag, and Rivera, unlike the other band members really falls down, and Breezy places a wreath over him, only to find that Rivera has really been seriously wounded with a needle-like projectile in his chest. Bellair has him taken out to an office and a doctor called, but it is too late. Rivera is dead. Lord Pastern and Baggott turns over the gun to Bellair who gives it to Alleyn. Scratches are found in the barrel consistent with the projectile, held in place by an umbrella release.

And Alleyn has a host of suspects–nearly everyone in Lord Pastern and Baggott’s party as well as several band members. Meanwhile he has to calm down the drug strung out Bellair and deal with the eccentric Lord who all but incriminates himself. Meanwhile, he has to figure out how the projectile, a knitting needle from Lady Cecile’s workbox found its way into Rivera’s chest..

I didn’t see the resolution of this one coming. Marsh’s red herrings drew me off. The plot where a pretended murder becomes an actual one is one Marsh will use again in Light Thickens, once again with Alleyn in the front row, a witness to the murder. Alleyn and Fox work patiently, refusing to be deflected by neither an annoying family nor the red herrings the killer used to throw Alleyn (and us) off track. An altogether satisfying ending, although it leaves us feeling that wealth is wasted on the rich.

Review: A Fine Red Rain

A Fine Red Rain (Porfiry Rostnikov #4), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press, 2012 (First published in 1987).

Summary: When two of three high wire artist die, one by suicide, one by “accident,” Rostnikov suspects more, little realizing the reach of the KGB into this case while his friends Sasha deals with black marketers and Karpo pursues a serial murderer of prostitutes.

Porfiry Rostnikov, once a hero has been demoted after a clash with the KGB, separated from his team of Sasha Tkach and Emil Karpo. Rostnikov’s son has been sent to Afghanistan, a warning of what can happen to family of those crossing the KGB. Rostnikov is reduced to chasing pickpockets in Arbat Square when he spots a man atop a statue of Gogol, spouting nonsense about flying. Rostnikov fails to talk him down as he ends his life with a perfect somersault onto the pavement. He was an aerial artist for the circus where the other male in the act, Oleg, discovers in the last moment of his life that his safety net is not. Rostnikov, thinking that there is more than a concurrent suicide and accident going on, sets out to investigate, The third, Katya Rashkovskaya, doesn’t want to be protected, even after Rostnikov saves her life. Nor will she tell him anything she knows. Then his old KGB boss, dying of cancer warns him off the case. This is KGB territory. But he suspects the deputy director, Mazaraki is behind the deaths and the murder attempt, and he uses that angle to keep pursuing the case.

Meanwhile, Sasha’s undercover work trapping videotape and machine black marketers reveals corruption on the part of his boss. The boss turns the black marketers to his own profitable end. That is, until Sasha teams up with Rostnikov and the two black marketers to mount a sting.

Emil Karpo has an obsession with unsolved crimes, studying the files, brooding over them. His current file is that of a series of murders of a prostitute. We are introduced to the killer, a file clerk wanting to make the Party safe from prostitutes…and he is feeling the compulsion to kill again.

Rostnikov, despite his leg injury, ends up playing a decisive role in the denouement of all three cases, while Sasha intervenes at a decisive moment to save Rostnikov’s life during the climactic confrontation. Clearly this team belongs together, and Rostnikov manages to find the leverage to make that happen by the end.

Kaminsky moves between the three plots in a fast-paced novel. One sees the currency of knowledge that can be used to subdue, to manipulate, and even to murder. Rostnikov, not ignorant of these things surprises us in his apparent vulnerability, and shrewd intelligence, combined with a loyalty to his friends, each with their own vulnerabilities. We see how difficult it can be to be married to someone in law enforcement, compounded in Rostnikov’s case with the ever present danger of falling afoul of his own superiors. Perhaps the only thing that protects Rostnikov is his own humility, the realization that these things could come at any time, and that he is never above or beyond them.

Review: When in Rome

When in Rome (Roderick Alleyn #26), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015.

Summary: Alleyn goes undercover on a Roman holiday tour led by a sketchy tour guide suspected of drug smuggling and other corrupt activities and ends up collaborating in a murder investigation.

This Ngaio Marsh work is different. Alleyn travels alone and incognito to Rome to find convicting evidence on a drug smuggler who is a British subject, and discover the other key figures of a syndicate led by a man named Ziegfeldt.. Fox and Bailey are back at Scotland Yard providing support. The story draws upon Marsh’s own Roman holiday in 1968, reproducing a tour of a basilica, street scenes, and even a student demonstration which she observed in Paris.

The novel begins with author Barnaby Grant enjoying a coffee at an outdoor café when a melee occurs, sending him sprawling with a blow to the shoulder. When he recovers, he discovers that the brief case with the only copy of his latest novel manuscript is missing. Three days later, the manuscript turns up in the form of Sebastian Mailer, who accepts no reward but a dinner with Grant. He mentions he also is a writer, then invites Grant to less reputable entertainment…and then turns around and blackmails him the next day. But what does he have on Grant?

What he does secure is Grant’s presence on an exclusive and expensive tour Mailer organizes, the first of which begins after the launch of Grant’s novel. An elderly Dutch couple associated with a religious publisher, a reputed former military figure, Major Sweet, a dissolute young man, Kenneth Dorne, and his mother Sonia, Lady Braceley are signed up. Rounding out the group are a young girl, Sophie Jason, from Grant’s publishing house, and Alleyn, trying to get close to Mailer.

When the tour reaches the Basilica di San Tommaso several things happen. A card seller verbally attacks Mailer, and is later seen in the shadows on the lower level of the structure. Mailer disappears as does she. Subsequently she is found in a sarcophagus while Mailer remains missing but was never seen leaving the Basilica. Alleyn reveals himself and joins the Roman investigators. It turns out that every man in the entourage is being extorted in some way by Mailer and Sweet and Dorne were absent during the time when the murder may have occurred.

A few days later, Mailer turns up at the bottom of a subterranean well in the Basilica. He was the lead suspect in the death of the woman, but who killed him? Was it one of the men or Mailer’s capable assistant? Eventually, the Roman authorities identify the suspect, who dies in an accident. But Alleyn connects the dots differently, and, in a first as far as I can determine, does not reveal him but lets him go.

This twist makes for an unusual ending, far different from the exciting “revcals” in many of her stories. We also see Alleyn in more of an undercover role, even stealthily surveilling one of the tour members. While he contributes, he really takes a back seat to the Romans in the murder investigation. All this represents something of a departure for Marsh in breaking out of the typically British upper crust settings of he books (although her characters are drawn from this class). She even writes a love story into the plot. When in Rome…

Review: Light Thickens

Light Thickens, Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2016 (originally published in 1982).

Summary: Set once again at the Dolphin theatre as Peregrine Jay stages Macbeth, a play surrounded by superstition, a production plagued by macabre practical jokes, and the real murder of the title character discovered just after the play’s climactic scene, with Alleyn in the front row.

This is the last Chief Inspector Alleyn mystery by Ngaio Marsh, completed in 1982 when she was 86 and just weeks before her passing. She returns to the scene of an earlier murder, the Dolphin theatre, as the accomplished Peregrine Jay undertakes one of the most audacious productions, and one surrounded by superstition–Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The superstition is that it is ill luck for any production members to mention the play by name or speak its lines elsewhere than in rehearsal or performance.

Jay has assembled an brilliant, but eccentric cast. The title character is played Dougal MacDougal, a true Scot and a vain one at that. Both he and his opposite, Simon Morten, who plays Macduff are real-life rivals for the affections of Margaret Mannering, who plays Lady Macbeth. Gaston Sears, who plays Seyton, has an obsession with arms, including the Claidheamh Mòr (emphatically not a claymore according to him), a wickedly sharp two edged sword used in the climactic fight between Macbeth and Macduff. He choreographs and trains them in the fight.

Banquo is played by Bruce Barrabell, a union leader and participant in fringe causes, and has a connection to the child actor, William Smith, who plays Macbeth’s son. William’s father was an insane murderer who killed by decapitation. The most superstitious is Nina Gaythorne as Lady Macduff, although Rangi, a Maori actor and one of the Three Witches rivals her.

A series of incidents arouse superstitions during rehearsals. A costume decapitated head is found in a bag during a rehearsal, and later under a covered platter. A warning message about William and his father is found on the manager’s typewriter. Then the opening weeks of the performance come off flawlessly to acclaim. That is, until Alleyn has front row seats, compliments of the house, after having provided security for some royals attending an earlier performance, and realizes as the climactic scene concludes that something has gone horribly wrong and Dougal MacDougal is really dead, and in the manner of his denouement as Macbeth.

It’s obvious that a number could have a motive and Marsh keeps us guessing until the end while Alleyn methodically interviews witnesses. Yet there is something off in the chronology. There wasn’t enough time for any of the suspects to commit the murder…or was there?

One of the most interesting themes is that of not charging children with the sins of their parents. There are several turns during which William is allowed to shine as his own person, and to be encouraged with the prospects of his future rather than haunted by his father’s past acts. In this, Marsh invites us to heed the better angels of our nature, and to believe the best of others.

Whether this was one of Marsh’s best, I will leave to others. All I will say is that she concluded her last act well.

Review: Death at the Bar

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!

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.