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!