Review: All the Devils Are Here

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.

” ‘Hell is empty, Armand,’ said Stephen Horowitz.

‘You’ve mentioned that. And all the devils are here?” asked Armand Gamache.”

All the Devils Are Here. p. 1.

This opening conversation seems strange in the garden of the Musee Rodin as Armand and his godfather Stephen Horowitz, an aging but active venture capitalist, who raised Armand from age nine, talk in the safety of each other’s company, sitting in front of Rodin’s statue, The Gates of Hell. Armand had always felt safe with this man. They are in Paris on a joyous occasion, the imminent birth of a child to Annie and Jean-Guy, and a chance to visit Daniel and Roslyn. They agree to meet that night for dinner with the whole family.

After dinner as they walk, tragedy strikes. Stephen Horowitz is run down by a van. To Gamache it is no accident, but intentional, and as Stephen lays clinging to life, Gamache works with Claude Dussault, the Prefect of Police in Paris to uncover who is behind all this. But not before the Armand and Reine-Marie find a second man gunned down in Stephen’s apartment, which has been ransacked in what appears an unsuccessful search, the Gamaches interrupting the gunman.

The whole family soon becomes involved. It becomes apparent that the engineering firm with which Jean-Guy is working, a position secretly arranged by Stephen, has been the target of Stephen’s efforts, that were to culminate with Stephen’s attendance at an upcoming board meeting. Jean-Guy searches for what could have been so important to cover up in the firm, GHS, drawing the attention of a security guard who turns out to be more than that. Daniel digs into financial transactions Stephen had with his bank, imperiling his safety. Reine-Marie works with a famous French archivist to discover both the secrets hidden in some cryptic dates Stephen had written on a piece of paper, and to learn the truth about disturbing allegations about Stephen’s past.

The investigations put the whole family at risk, and they move into a lavish suite Stephen mysteriously rented for his stay rather than using his own apartment, where they could be better protected. But the secret whose threads they are unraveling is apparently so dire that those concealing it have left a trail of bodies in their wake, including a journalist investigating a GHS mine and a mysterious train derailment. And the trail of corruption appears to include even Gamache’s old friend Dussault. What protection do they have if the Paris police are corrupted?

Along the way, we discover more about Gamache’s childhood with Stephen, and about the cause of the estrangement between Gamache and his son Daniel, going back to Daniel’s childhood. And Gamache and Jean-Guy are teamed up once more, for those of us who feared we’d seen the end of their teamwork.

The two things that make this a riveting read are the effort to uncover GHS’s buried secret and the question of whether Gamache and the family team (plus a few others) will be able to outsmart and outmaneuver those willing to stop at nothing to protect that secret. They are not even sure of who the “devils” may be and whether they are in their very midst. All this leads to a heart-stopping climax at Stephen’s apartment.

Once again, resolute love runs through this book–the love between Armand and Stephen, expressed with great tenderness at Stephen’s bedside, the love Armand has for his family, even, and especially the estranged Daniel, who at the same time realizes that Jean-Guy has become something to Armand that Daniel is not able to share.

Which brings me back to what captures my appreciation for this series. It is not just the consummate storytelling, but above all the character of Gamache and those around him, people of resolve, integrity, and grace who at least this reader wants to emulate.

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: More Work for the Undertaker

More Work for the Undertaker, Margery Allingham. London: Vintage, 2007 (originally published in 1948).

Summary: When two boarding house residents from the same family die, Albert Campion is persuaded to become a boarder to discover what’s afoot.

I’m a “Queens of Crime” fan, having read many of the mysteries of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh. There is a fourth “queen” I’ve not read until now, Margery Allingham, whose main character is the aristocratic Albert Campion. I picked at random one that was available inexpensively as an e-book, which happens to be number 13 in the series, More Work for the Undertaker.

Campion has been persuaded by the Chief of Scotland Yard, Stanislaus Oates to become an “undercover” boarder at the boarding house of Renee Roper, a faded actress. The house once belonged to the Palinode family, a professor and his eccentric children. Two have died recently under suspicious circumstances, both Edward and Ruth, from apparent strokes. Three remain, the moody Lawrence, the fashionable Evadne, and the eccentric herbalist, Jessica.

Exhumations reveal that Ruth, who had a gambling problem, had been poisoned, but not Edward. Ruth also had willed seemingly worthless shares to another boarder, Captain Seton. Except that there is evidence that the shares are about to become very valuable. Who would want her dead? A family member? Or someone else with an interest.

There are funny things happening on Apron Street, where the Palinodes live. The “skinny” among is that some of their number are disappearing “up Apron Street.” Campion has his suspicions of the undertaker when he sees him and his son carrying a coffin from Renee’s boarding house basement to their business across the road but everything about them seems on the up and up. As Campion and DDI Charlie Luke, with whom he is working pursue investigations, an interview with the pharmacist results in a suicide by cyanide. Then there is the banker, Congreve, who goes missing. Meanwhile, a young man dating a girl at the boarding house is found badly concussed in a shed where he stored his motorbike.

There are so many threads going on that it is not always easy to keep track of it all and one wonders how it all connects. I don’t know if this is characteristic of all of Allingham’s works, but her plot here is the most complicated of those I’ve encountered among the Queens of Crime. A list of characters would certainly be helpful. But the characters are quirky enough to be really interesting and the culminating events make both an exciting finish and tie up all the loose ends. It feels to me that Allingham demands more of the reader, but rewards that with a truly complicated and fascinating mystery. I may well try a few more!

Review: A Better Man

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.

We left Gamache removed from his position as Chief Superintendent after his daring and legally questionable tactics to quash the drug trade. Jean Guy, who had taken his old position of Chief Inspector of Homicide is headed for a private sector job in Paris in a couple weeks. And Armand? He accepts the one position no one thought he would take–his old job as Chief Inspector. And for two weeks, he is working under Jean Guy, his protege’ and son-in law. Awkward, eh?

During a meeting where Gamache is deferential to his new boss, Agent Cloutier discusses a call she received from Homer Godin, the father of her godchild Vivienne. Vivienne, married to an abusive husband, is missing after she had called to say she was leaving and coming to him. Beauvoir assigns him and Cloutier to have a look around, and their encounter with the husband, Carl Tracy, only amplifies their fears.

A larger fear is looming as well. There is a rapid thaw combined with spring rains throughout Quebec. Ice jams threaten bridges, rivers are rising everywhere, including the Bella Bella running through Three Pines, and the giant dams in the north are under stress. Gamache, called back to Montreal for a meeting of top civic leaders, quietly upstages the premier by recommending a drastic, but ultimately effective strategy. He’s dismissed from the meeting, and discovers something else is rising–a social media storm of criticism against him that jeopardizes even his current demoted status. Will Chief Superintendent Toussaint, who Gamache had recommended, protect herself and abandon Gamache to the sharks?

A similar social media storm is surrounding Clara Morrow, whose latest exhibit of miniatures have been panned, causing critics to re-evaluate her past art. Ruth, thinking to help, invites Dominica Oddly, the one New York art critic who has never reviewed Clara’s work to Clara’s studio. And while Oddly speaks glowingly of Clara’s past work, she considers the miniatures–well, as they say in French, merde and proceeds to write a review to that effect and then discovers what it means to tell all the truth with malice, while Clara faces the truth about these works and the wreckage of her career.

Isabelle Lacoste, at loose ends until her new assignment is finalized, joins the investigation to find Vivienne, working with Cloutier, who she has mentored. Then Beauvoir comes down to Three Pines when news of the flooding of the Bella Bella reaches him, and the three team up on the investigation. Amid the harrowing moments of narrowly averting the flooding of Three Pines using the tactics Gamache has recommended elsewhere, they find Vivienne’s body and a bag of her belongings, searched as her husband turns up and demands that they stop.

More and more, the evidence points to Carl Tracy, the husband. Cloutier gains access to a private Instagram account of Tracy’s through his sometime lover and assistant in marketing his pottery, and finds incriminating evidence. But when Tracy is arraigned, with Vivienne’s father present, it all goes sidewise due to the judge’s rulings that errors in procedure mean the whole evidence trail is poisoned fruit and cannot be used. Tracy goes scot-free while Gamache works to restrain Homer Godin from killing him.

It looks like Beauvoir’s last case with Gamache is going to hell. Are all the tweets true? And it has gotten worse. The real video that showed Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste in the factory ambush has been doctored to make Gamache look like a child killer. Then someone under the name @dumbass, who Gamache thinks is Ruth after her stunt with Dominica Oddly, posts the real video, bringing up old wounds for all involved.

What will they do? They go back and look at the evidence. What do they have that isn’t poisoned? And as they do, it takes them in unexpected directions and surprise revelations. The end of this one gets very twisty indeed.

There is a question running throughout, asked most desperately by Homer Godin, filled with grief and revenge, that Gamache and others face–what if it were your daughter, your child? What would you do? Do you try to murder the man who is your daughter’s abuser and killer? Do you let someone do so, when he is as vile as Tracy comes across? Ought the pursuit of justice, often hampered by procedures that protect the rights of the accused, step aside to allow revenge?

There is also a theme of mentors and mentees that runs through the book: Gamache and Beauvoir and their reversed roles and changing relationship as Beauvoir prepares to leave, Isabelle and Cloutier, particularly when Cloutier screws up, and Gamache and a young agent, Bob Cameron, a former football player who lost his job for repeatedly holding to protect his quarterback. Because of a relationship with the victim, he is even a possible suspect, yet we see Gamache beginning to teach, and I suspect we will see more of Bob Cameron.

We also see characters wrestle with the theme of what they will do when they screw up, or are perceived to do by vicious social media. Will Gamache be “a better man”? Will Clara become a better artist? Meanwhile, we are left wondering whether things between Myrna and Billy Williams will go anywhere and stand in amazement at the drunken old poet Ruth as she leads the effort to sandbag the river frontage against rising floods, and whispers wise comfort to Homer at his most murderous.

I continue to love these books as an extended exploration of the character of leadership and the communal decency of this small village. This one had so many layers that wove seamlessly together in a twisting and fascinating plot that I’ve come to recognize as a mark of Penny’s genius.

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.

Review: Singing in the Shrouds

Singing in the Shrouds (Roderick Alleyn #20), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: Alleyn joins a ship bound for Cape Town seeking a serial murderer, one of nine passengers.

Hmm. This isn’t my idea of a good time. A cruise on a cargo ship with eight other passengers, all strangers. Add to that the possibility of a serial murderer on board, one of those passengers. That’s the scenario Ngaio Marsh has created in this installment of the Roderick Alleyn mysteries.

An eccentric group comes aboard the Cape Farewell, captained by Jasper Bannerman, an old sea dog used to being in charge–perhaps too much so. Mrs. Ruby Dillington-Blick is a widowed socialite, living large in every sense, used to being adored. Fred and Ethel Cuddy are a middle-class, middle-aged couple. Katherine Abbott is a spinster specializing in church music, with large hands and feet! Philip Merryman is a fussy retired schoolmaster. Jemima Carmichael is on the cruise to heal from a broken engagement. Dr. Timothy Makepiece signed on as ship’s doctor to travel to South Africa. Aubyn Dale is an alcoholic TV emcee skating very close to a breakdown. And Mr. Donald McAngus is an elderly, stamp-collecting bachelor.

Just before the ship sailed, a young girl is murdered near the docks. The murder has all the marks of “the Flower Killer,” who strangles the victims with a necklace, found broken, strews flower petals over them, and departs the scene singing. The murderer has killed at ten day intervals. The girl is found just as the Cape Farewell departs. Part of an embarkation notice for the ship is found in her hand.

The suspicion is that the murderer is one of the passengers. They all had been in the vicinity prior to sailing. Alleyn is assigned the case, boarding at Portsmouth, assuming the identity of a shipping company official. He has to investigate without appearing to do so or alarming the passengers. And Bannerman is less than willing to help. He doesn’t believe any of these passengers could be the murderer. But the case is urgent. The next ten day interval will expire while the ship is at sea. There could be another victim.

This is one of my favorites so far. There is a budding love affair between Jemima and the doctor. The doctor and the priest have alibis that check out and become silent partners with Alleyn in watching out for the women. Marsh does well in leaving both red herrings and avoids giving away the murderer. We can’t help but admire Mrs. Dillington-Blick, as do all the men around her. I found myself wondering a bit about the mysterious Katherine Abbott. And I didn’t want anything to happen to Jemima, who struck me as the perfect murder victim. This makes for a great holiday or vacation read!