Review: Hand in Glove

Hand in Glove (Roderick Alleyn #22), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015 (originally published in 1962).

Summary: An April Fool’s scavenger hunt organized by Lady Bantling ends badly when a body is found under a drainage pipe in a ditch.

It all started at lunch. Nicola Maitland-Mayne had been escorted by Andrew Bantling, with whom she is quickly taken, to the home of Mr. Percival Pyke Period. She is employed to take dictation on Pyke Period’s book on etiquette. Mr. Pyke Period invites her to what ends up a disastrous lunch. Andrew has departed to Lady Bantling’s after an angry interview with Harold Cartell, his guardian who refuses to make over Andrew’s inheritance to him so he can pursue a career as an artist. He opposed Andrew’s decision to leave the Guards to pursue his art. Harold Cartell seems generally disagreeable, a lawyer who has moved in with Pyke Period to conserve costs. He makes a disagreeable allusion to Pyke Period’s ancestry. He also has a truly annoying dog, Pixie, which is always getting loose and bites. Also at the lunch is sad Connie Cartell, Harold’s spinster sister has taken a 20 year old orphan, “Moppet,” under her wing. Moppet is accompanied by Leonard Leiss, a flashy dresser with a criminal background. Harold Cartell has insisted Connie end her relationship with these ne’er-do-wells. The lunch ends with Leiss looking at a cigarette case owned by Pyke Period which subsequently goes missing.

The scene shifts to Lady Bantling’s, Harold Cartell’s former wife, now married to Bimbo Dodds, who it turns out has club connections with Leiss. She’s organizing one of her legendary parties for April Fool’s, a scavenger hunt. Leiss and the Moppet wrangle an invitation and Andrew invites Nicola to join the fun. Everyone is out at one point or another in the evening. The next morning, Harold Cartell is found in a drainage ditch being dug for Mr. Pyke Period, underneath a length of drain pipe that has shattered his skull. It seems someone moved boards over the ditch everyone used so that the board upturned, knocking Cartell into the ditch, along with a lantern. Also, Mr. Pyke Period’s cigarette case is lying nearby in the ditch.

Nicola’s friend, Roderick Alleyn and his assistant, Inspector Fox are called in. Now she is a front row witness. Nearly everyone mentioned here are possible suspects. Cartell was not a beloved man. It all comes down to some missing gloves, and the hands that had been in them, moving the plank and levering the pipe into the ditch, as well as a mix up in correspondence from Pyke Period.

The upper crust folk come off pretty unlikeable, although Lady Bantling is a character. Andrew and Nicola stand out. While Andrew had a motive, he’d sat with Nicola in the car and then returned with her to Lady Bantling’s at the end of the scavenger hunt. They also stand out as the two people who are actually working to make a living; he in his art, she in her secretarial work. Eventually, even Troy affirms his art. The others seem to live vacuous lives, as do most of the wealthy in the other of Marsh’s novels I’ve read. One can’t help but to see thinly-veiled social commentary in these depictions.

While all of Marsh’s books are decent reads, this felt more workmanlike than some when it came to solving the actual murder (and another murder attempt). The eccentric but somewhat one-dimensional characters seemed to dominate the plot more than the twists and turns of unraveling the murder. I do hope, however, that we haven’t seen the last of Andrew and Nicola.

Review: Final Curtain

Final Curtain (Inspector Alleyn #14), Ngaio Marsh. New York, Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1947.

Summary: While Inspector Alleyn is returning from wartime service in New Zealand, Troy Alleyn, his artist wife is commissioned on short notice to paint a portrait of Sir Henry Ancred, a noteworthy stage actor, meeting his dramatic family, encountering a number of practical jokes including one that infuriates Sir Henry at his birthday dinner, after which he is found dead the next morning. Inspector Alleyn arrives home to investigate a possible murder in which his wife is an interested party.

Troy Alleyn is eagerly awaiting the return of her husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, after a lengthy assignment in New Zealand during the war. She is an artist of some repute and receives a commission from Sir Henry Ancred, a noted stage actor, to paint his portrait at Ancreton Manor, the ancestral home of the family. She quickly discovers that she will have to contend with far more than Sir Henry, who is a striking subject. She has to reside with a theatrical family whose daily interactions are high drama. We are introduced to everyone from the responsible Paul, Sir Henry’s son to the flippant Cedric, Fenella, a granddaughter and Paul, a cousin, who are engaged despite Sir Henry’s opposition, Millament, the dutiful widowed daughter-in-law, Pauline, engrossed in her son Paul’s affairs, and Jennetta and Desdemona. Finally, there the young and willful Patricia, or as she is known, Panty–known for her practical jokes.

Troy’s arrival coincides with an outbreak of practical jokes–paint on the bannister to her room, a greasepaint message on Sir Henry’s mirror, and painting over Alleyn’s portrait of Sir Henry–humorous and easily removed. The family all thinks it points back to Panty–except for Troy who has become friends with the young child.

The family drama is heightened by another guest, Sonia Orrincourt, who is Sir Henry’s love interest. Given Sir Henry’s increasingly fragile health and his propensity to constantly change his will, which currently favors Panty, there is all kind of apprehension, gossip, and attempts to manipulate Sir Henry’s outlook. All this comes to a climax at Sir Henry’s Birthday dinner as he announces his new will and his engagement to Sonia. This is followed by the unveiling of Alleyn’s portrait of Sir Henry, once again marred by a cow, like those Panty likes to paint, flying over Sir Henry’s head. While the damage to the painting is easily undone, Sir Henry goes to bed upset in stomach from dinner and emotionally wrought out. Next morning, Barker, the butler, finds him dead.

Troy is present during all of this, which takes up nearly half the book, departing as the undertaker arrives to go and meet her husband. She recounts the story, which he enjoys, even as they get reacquainted. Then, back at Ancreton, things get more interesting. Someone sends the whole family a note written on school paper alleging that Sir Henry was murdered. Sir Henry had been interested in an ancestral embalming method involving arsenic, a book about which was in his library and several had consulted. A tin of rat poison is missing. Inspector Alleyn and his team are asked to make inquiries. Increasingly, he becomes convinced that Sir Henry was murdered.

The story turns on wills and family attachments and the unhealthy loves people can have for those around them. The unusual situation of Troy being an interested party brings her into the investigation. Her memory for detail is invaluable and it turns out that she gives Alleyn the decisive clue.

I have to admit that I had kind of hoped that most of those at Ancreton Manor apart from the butler and Panty would be found guilty. Marsh creates a family full of unlikable people as well as portraying the Inspector’s wife as a capable professional (and detective) in her own right. I hope I encounter more of Troy in future novels! It will be interesting to see if Marsh brings them together on a case again.

Review: Death in Ecstasy

Death in Ecstasy (Roderick Alleyn #4), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2012 (originally published in 1936).

Summary: Nigel Bathgate happens upon the strange religious rites at the House of the Sacred Flame just in time to witness the death of Cara Quayne, the Chosen Vessel, when she imbibes a chalice of wine laced with cyanide.

Felony & Mayhem Press has been re-printing the Roderick Alleyn mysteries by legendary mystery writer, Ngaio Marsh, one of the “Queens of Crime,” along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. Her main character was Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a gentlemanly and understated detective whose “Watson” is a newspaperman, Nigel Bathgate. His crime investigation team includes Detective-Inspector Fox and his fingerprint expert Detective-Sergeant Bailey.

This story begins when Bathgate, bored on a rainy night, slips into the services of the House of the Sacred Flame, down the street from his flat. Fascination with the pantheon of statues, the worshipers and the mystical rite with Initiates who each identify with a god turns to horror at the culmination of the ceremony. The Chosen Vessel, a single woman of some means accepts a chalice of wine from Jasper Garnette, the Officiating Priest. drinks deeply anticipating spiritual ecstasy. Instead she gasps, her face contorted and collapses. An onlooking physician, Dr. Kasbek smells the scent of potassium cyanide, and Alleyn and his team are called in.

The lead suspects are Garnette and the other Initiates, each of who drank of the chalice. Samuel Ogden, the warden was a businessman ostensibly from America. Raoul de Ravigne, another warden had been enamored with the victim, who was fond of him as a friend, to the point of leaving him her house in her will. Maurice Pringle is an excitable young man who is suffering an addiction to opioids. His fiance, and the youngest initiative is Janey Jenkins, sweet and loving. Ernestine Wade was the oldest while Dagmar Candour was jealous of Cara’s affections toward Raoul, and her being favored as the Chosen Vessel.

Much of the action hinges around a book found hidden in Garnette’s bookcase that falls open to a recipe for homemade cyanide. It came from Mr. Ogden’s books, attracted attention at a party at Ogden’s, then disappeared about the time Claude Wheatley, one of two acolytes, picks up some books for Garnette. Then there are the missing bonds from Garnette’s safe–bonds given for a new building by Cara Quane–and the visit by Cara to his office the afternoon of her death and the will she changed that same afternoon.

What I liked about this story was the relationship of Alleyn and Bathgate–delightful repartee between them as they sort out the evidence of the case. Alleyn is also fascinating in his instincts as to how to interview each suspect. Particularly intriguing is his toughness with the addict, Maurice Pringle, that turns out to be tough love. We see in Alleyn a combination of someone who can be dogged in pursuit of a murderer who has concealed his or her identity well, as well as genuine compassion for lives unraveled by those who have betrayed their trust. Marsh offers just enough twists to keep it interesting, a likable recurring ensemble, and a timely and satisfying denouement.

Review: Death of a Peer (Surfeit of Lampreys)

Death of a Peer (Surfeit of Lampreys), Ngaio Marsh. New York, Harper Collins: New York, 2009.

Summary: A New Zealander’s visit to a happy-go-lucky English family is interrupted by the gruesome murder of Lord Charles’ brother in the elevator serving their flat, making the family prime suspects for Scotland Yard detective Roderick Alleyn

Ngaio Marsh, along with Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Margerie Allingham, was one of the crime queens of the golden age of British crime fiction. She wrote a total of 32 Roderick Alleyn mysteries. This one is a special treat, both because of the unusual family, and connected characters, most of whom are possible suspects in a murder.

Death of a Peer is narrated largely through the eyes of a young girl from New Zealand, Roberta “Robin” Grey, who met the family, the Lampreys, while they tried their hands at becoming New Zealand landowners. Even then, what stands out is that this fun-loving family never really seems to apply itself to anything, is always in financial straits, and never takes this too seriously. After they returned to London, Robin is invited to stay with an aunt, but due to the aunt’s health, first stays with the Lampreys. Oh, what fun–especially with the eldest son Henry, to whom she is drawn.

Maybe not so much. Once again the Lampreys are up to their ears in debt and being hounded by debt collectors. Lord Charles, the head of the family hopes to get a bailout from his older brother, Gabriel, Marquis of Wutherwood and Rune. Uncle Gabriel and his wife, Aunt V. agree to a visit. Aunt V. is a witch and an eccentric, mentally unstable character. While Aunt V. visits with the women, the children listen in the next room as Uncle G. refuses the loan and the two brothers exchange harsh words. He leaves, sits down in the lift awaiting his wife, calls out to her twice, then they depart, helped by one of the twins.

Robin hears all this and then a loud shrieking as the lift comes back to the third floor. The doors open, Aunt V staggers out, beside herself, and the family sees a slumped over Uncle G., dying of fatal and gruesome wound from a skewer, earlier used in a skit put on by the children.

Enter Roderick Alleyn, whose challenge is made more difficult by this family who presents a united front. The identical twins, Colin and Stephen will not reveal which of them went to the elevator. Lord Charles stands to inherit, but the whole family has an interest. None of them, including the charming Henry holds down a job. Most helpful to Alleyn are the young child Michael and Robin, in her memory of the movements of various people, including Baskett, the butler, Giggles, the chauffer, and Tinkerton, Aunt V.’s attendant. This is despite her lie about the outcome of the meeting between Lord Charles and Gabriel.

This has it all, including an edge-of-the-seat ending, intricate plot, fascinating unusual characters, and the modest Alleyn who patiently works to connect all the dots. These books have been out of print (my copy was an old paperback literally falling apart) but have recently come on the market as e-books. Each of the “crime queens” have their own style. If you like this period, be sure to try out Ngaio Marsh. This one is a good place to start.