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…