Review: Died in the Wool

Died in the Wool (Roderick Alleyn #13), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1945).

Summary: New Zealand member of Parliament Flossie Rubrick is found dead, concealed in a bale of wool from her farm, and Alleyn, working in counter-espionage during the war, comes to investigate because of secret research on the farm.

The setting is the highlands of New Zealand during World War 2. After having apparently departed for a session of Parliament, Flossie Rubrick has been missing for three weeks, until found in a bale of wool from Mount Moon, her farm. Roderick Alleyn, engaged in war service in counter-espionage, is sent fifteen months later to investigate because of some secret research being conducted by her husband’s nephew on the farm–a type of aerial magnetic anti-aircraft mine.

Flossie had been an influential force in Parliament. Her driving character did not make her easy to live with, whether it was her generosity to her niece Ursula and her husband’s nephew Fabian, the one doing research, with practical assistance from Flossie’s nephew, Douglas Grace. Flossie could be generous, but drove everyone in her circle hard, including her secretary Terence Lynne and her husband, Arthur, working together researching and formulating her policy proposals. Their work together fostered an attraction, discovered the first time it had found expression when Flossie intruded weeks before her death. She separated them and was cloyingly sweet to Arthur. Then there is Cliff Johns, son of the working manager of the farm. Cliff had become her protege when she discovered his musical talent, until the night before, when Markins, the manservant, discovered him apparently stealing some of her whiskey. Markins himself is not without suspicion, having been sent from a generous wool buyer, Kurata Kan, suspected of ties with the Japanese spy effort.

In other words, there is a whole cast of characters with a motive for murder, and perhaps a larger agenda, something that becomes evident when Fabian, mistaken for Alleyn, nearly suffers the same fate as Flossie. As in other cases, Alleyn interviews everyone, including the whole family circle together in an awkward discussion that reveals varying perceptions of Flossie. Small things–a lost diamond clip, a stub of a candle, smudges on the floor of the wool shed where the murder occurred and the whereabouts of each person when the murder occurred all are important.

In the end, Alleyn sets a trap, with himself as the bait, to catch a murderer and a spy. The trap works but who will be found in it and why?

This is one that builds up at a leisurely pace at first as Alleyn does his interviews–lots of conversation looking at Flossie Rubrick and her murder from every perspective. Then things accelerate and the book turns into a page-turner as we come to the final scenes. Even then, while Alleyn has his hunches, it is the murderer (and spy) who is responsible for the big reveal. All in all, a well-crafted story!

Review: Killer Dolphin

Killer Dolphin (Inspector Alleyn #24), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2015 (originally published in 1966).

Summary: Through an accident, a playwright realizes his dream of a renovated Dolphin Theatre, with packed houses for one of his plays, until a murder occurs and a boy actor is badly injured in a botched theft.

Peregrine Jay is a playwright and director with a dream–to restore the old Dolphin Theatre to the glory it enjoyed under Adolphus Ruby. The building suffered wartime damage with a bomb that left a hole in the stage, and it is in otherwise solid, but decayed shape. Jay arranges to tour the building, and despite being warned, falls through the hole in the stage into a well beneath where water has collected. He’s in danger of drowning when a rescuer comes, pulls him out and takes him to his estate where he is clothed and refreshed. This unlikely savior is the owner of the property who feels responsible for the accident.

Vassily Conducis is a rich magnate with a mysterious manner. In the course of their conversation, he shows Jay a glove that has been authenticated as that of young Hamnet Shakespeare, who predeceased his more illustrious father. It inspires Jay to write a play. Also, under the influence of too much to drink, Peregrine Jay shares his dreams for the Dolphin Theatre. Amazingly, Conducis agrees to bankroll this, working through his business agent, Greenslade.

Months later, the Dolphin gleams in its former glory, Jay has written his play, which will debut at the theatre with its twin dolphins in the lobby. The cast is brilliant if wrought with turmoil–dislikes, broken romances and jealousies, and one difficult to work with actor, W. Hartly Grove, a rival to Marcus Knight on and off stage. Conducis, otherwise removed from the day to day operations, insisted on his inclusion. The other thing insisted upon is a display of the glove, in a glass window, part of a protective safe, very secure, but with an easily guessable combination created by the business manager of the theatre. Superintendent Alleyn has overseen the security arrangements, expressing concerns about that combination.

The play is a wild success on its own merits as well as the draw of the rare glove. On the night before the glove is to be removed to be sold to an American buyer (an offense to Jeremy Jones, Jay’s roommate, who designed costumes for the play and believed in keeping Britain’s treasures in Britain) a terrible thing happens. The overnight watchman finds Jobbins, who watched the theatre in the evening, dead, killed by a blow to the head from one of the dolphins. And the annoying boy actor, Trevor Vere has fallen out of the balcony into the stalls and is in a coma with serious injuries. The glove and some documents, missing from the safe, were found nearby.

Alleyn concludes on the basis of evidence that it must be someone in the cast. Who stole the glove? And why? If Trevor comes around, will he be the guilty one, or know who is? What about Jeremy? And other cast members have motives, as well as connections with the mysterious Mr. Conducis. And what will become of Peregrine Jay’s dream and budding romance with Emily Dunne.

One of the things striking about this work is Marsh’s descriptions of the theatre. One could almost draw sketches of the interior, or at least envision the theatre in one’s mind. She paints not only a picture of this grand old building rising from the river, but evokes an atmosphere of wharves and watercraft, workers and the theatre crowd, all in the mix of this space. What may have been less satisfying was the stereotypic theatre cast, the vain star, the ditzy actress, the rogue, the lover snubbed, the spoiled child actor. There is a fascinating observation about how actors thrive on the drama and emotion within the caste, using it in their acting. I wonder. At any rate, it all worked to advance the story but they all just seemed to be types, with only Peregrine Jay evoking any interest, as well as Conducis, when he appears, definitely one of Marsh’s more interesting character.

Alleyn, of course is drawn into it all, handling the security surrounding the glove. As always, one of the most satisfying aspects of these stories is his patient piecing together of evidence, stories, and histories bringing the case to a successful, and surprising conclusion. This is an engaging book for those who like their mysteries with a bit of “head” on them.

Review: A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead, (Roderick Alleyn #1), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2011 (originally published in 1934).

Summary: Sir Hubert Handesley hosts one of his famous weekend parties and Nigel Bathgate, a young reporter is invited to join his cousin Charles Rankin for the weekend’s entertainment, the Murder Game, which becomes serious when Rankin turns up the corpse–for real!

Charles Rankin, a man about town and his younger cousin Nigel Bathgate have been invited to one of Sir Hubert Handesley’s famous house parties. The are joined by Sir Handesley’s niece, Angela North, Arthur and Marjorie Wilde, Rosamund Grant, at one time enamored with Rankin and a Russian art expert, Foma Tokareff. The entertainment for the weekend is the Murder Game. Someone is given a card making them the murderer. They have so many hours to carry out the murder, whispering the words “You’re the corpse” in the ear of the victim. The murderer then bangs a gong, turns out the lights and blends in.

While the guests are dressing for dinner, in connecting rooms where they hear each other, they hear the gong and the lights go out. When they assemble, they discover the victim, Charles Rankin. In his back was a knife that had been under discussion the previous evening, a gift for services to Rankin. It had occasioned alarm among the Russians: the art expert and the Russian butler, Vassily. The knife evidences a sinister history with a “brotherhood” with which Vassily was connected, at least at one time. To possess this was to be accursed. Rankin laughs it off and makes out a “joke” will bequeathing the knife to Sir Handesley should Rankin die first. Sir Handesley had an avid interest in weaponry.

Enter Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, the first time we are introduced to him. He’s courteous, thorough, and has quickly ruled out Bathgate, who was witnessed by a maid in his room at the time of the murder. This sets him up to be Alleyn’s sounding board, the beginning of their friendship that runs through the books.. Things get more interesting when Vassily flees the scene. Was this a case where the butler really did it? At another point, Mr. Wilde comes forward but the facts don’t add up. It seems there is a house full of innocent people and yet a man who lay dead. Maybe an outsider really did it.

This being the first of the series, one can see how Ngaio Marsh caught on. The characters are fashionable and some are edgy, like Angela who has chemistry with Bathgate, and loves to drive excessively fast in her Bentley. There are enough red herrings both to interest and distract, and even a scene where Bathgate is deceived and subjected to torture! Marsh combines the leisure of a country house and the excitement of murders, fast cars, bits of this and that found about the premises and a climactic gathering of the suspects as they prepare to depart after the inquest. We turn to a book like this for both leisure and enough excitement to hold our interest and Marsh delivers this in her debut to the Alleyn series.

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.