Vintage Murder (Roderick Alleyn # 5), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2012 (first published in 1937).
Summary: Alleyn falls in with a theatre company while in New Zealand and discovers that neither murder nor police work take a vacation.
New Zealand. Trains. Theatres. Murders in Alleyn’s presence. It would be an interesting trivia question for Alleyn lovers of how many novels in this series have one or more of these elements as a significant plot element. This story has them ALL.
Alleyn is on holiday, riding across New Zealand on a train. The other people in his car are the assorted cast members and others associated with the Carolyn Dacres Comedy Company, a touring company. He surveys the company, many of whom are sleeping but a few are awake including a seatmate, leading many Hailey Hambledon and a restless young actor, Courtney Broadhead, who gambles more than is good for him. Alleyn dozes, awakened with the awareness that someone had walked past him. Shortly after, he is sought out by Hambledon, who informs him that someone had tried to kill Alfred Meyer by pushing him off a platform between cars. He listens to the story, advises contact with the authorities, which Meyer, the proprietor of the company, is reluctant to pursue. Then word of another crime intrudes as Valerie Gaynes, a novice actress taken on as a favor reports that a large sum of money in a folder in her luggage had been stolen. Alleyn looks, while asking everyone to keep his true identity secret.
They arrive at their destination in Middleton without further excitement. We meet the various characters and overhear a conversation between Hambledon and Carolyn suggesting some sort of romantic involvement, but one she will not pursue as a Catholic who does not believe in divorce. Only if Alfred is dead would anything be possible. Broadhead settles up gambling debts while Liversidge, the other “juvenile” seems flush with funds. Ackroyd practices his acerbic wit on all and sundry. George Mason, the business manager and Meyer’s partner, seems absorbed with matters in the office. All the preparations for the show are supplemented by an after-show dinner in honor of Carolyn Dacres birthday planned by Alfred Meyer, her husband, which includes a jeroboam of champagne being lowered to the table, counterweighted with a heavy weight, which plummets to the stage at one point as the apparatus is being set up.
You see where all this is going, don’t you? Alleyn has been provided a seat at the performance, and invited to dinner. He buys a gift of a tiki, a symbol of good fortune on the advice of Maori Dr. Te Pokiha, also with the party. It is passed around for all to look at before the surprise of the night, the champagne jeroboam. When Carolyn cuts the cord holding it, the jeroboam plummets, breaking upon the head of Alfred Meyer, killing him.
Alleyn discovers the counterweight had been removed. This was no accident. But who in this tight knit cast would have done it? Could it be connected with the events on the train. Did Meyer know who stole the money. What about Hambledon who had reason to wish Meyer dead. Or perhaps Carolyn herself? The other with a financial stake was Mason, the business partner, but he was not seen leaving his office during the crucial time. Or could it have been the somewhat mysterious Maori, Dr. Te Pokiha?
Alleyn is invited to join the investigation by local authorities, enthralled by a professional text written by Alleyn and the chance to watch him up close. So goes vacation and anonymity! The investigation involves the movements of all the cast members, the layout of the theatre, what became of the tiki, and why a weight, not heavy enough for the counterbalance, was affixed to the rope after Alleyn investigated. What, if any, connection did the events on the train have to Meyer’s murder?
Marsh handles all the classic elements with style, throwing in red herrings to divert us. We wonder if Alleyn will be able to solve this in time for the troop to leave for its next performance–and what will happen with the leading lady’s husband gone? And will Alleyn get his vacation in, or merely a busman’s holiday? While not terribly imaginative, and a bit drawn out in its investigation of various cast members, I still found the denouement satisfying as well as how Marsh got there.