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.

Review: Singing in the Shrouds

Singing in the Shrouds (Roderick Alleyn #20), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: Alleyn joins a ship bound for Cape Town seeking a serial murderer, one of nine passengers.

Hmm. This isn’t my idea of a good time. A cruise on a cargo ship with eight other passengers, all strangers. Add to that the possibility of a serial murderer on board, one of those passengers. That’s the scenario Ngaio Marsh has created in this installment of the Roderick Alleyn mysteries.

An eccentric group comes aboard the Cape Farewell, captained by Jasper Bannerman, an old sea dog used to being in charge–perhaps too much so. Mrs. Ruby Dillington-Blick is a widowed socialite, living large in every sense, used to being adored. Fred and Ethel Cuddy are a middle-class, middle-aged couple. Katherine Abbott is a spinster specializing in church music, with large hands and feet! Philip Merryman is a fussy retired schoolmaster. Jemima Carmichael is on the cruise to heal from a broken engagement. Dr. Timothy Makepiece signed on as ship’s doctor to travel to South Africa. Aubyn Dale is an alcoholic TV emcee skating very close to a breakdown. And Mr. Donald McAngus is an elderly, stamp-collecting bachelor.

Just before the ship sailed, a young girl is murdered near the docks. The murder has all the marks of “the Flower Killer,” who strangles the victims with a necklace, found broken, strews flower petals over them, and departs the scene singing. The murderer has killed at ten day intervals. The girl is found just as the Cape Farewell departs. Part of an embarkation notice for the ship is found in her hand.

The suspicion is that the murderer is one of the passengers. They all had been in the vicinity prior to sailing. Alleyn is assigned the case, boarding at Portsmouth, assuming the identity of a shipping company official. He has to investigate without appearing to do so or alarming the passengers. And Bannerman is less than willing to help. He doesn’t believe any of these passengers could be the murderer. But the case is urgent. The next ten day interval will expire while the ship is at sea. There could be another victim.

This is one of my favorites so far. There is a budding love affair between Jemima and the doctor. The doctor and the priest have alibis that check out and become silent partners with Alleyn in watching out for the women. Marsh does well in leaving both red herrings and avoids giving away the murderer. We can’t help but admire Mrs. Dillington-Blick, as do all the men around her. I found myself wondering a bit about the mysterious Katherine Abbott. And I didn’t want anything to happen to Jemima, who struck me as the perfect murder victim. This makes for a great holiday or vacation read!

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.