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.

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.

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: 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.