Tuesday, 10 March 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Vintage Murder (1937)

Edition: Fontana

This is one of Ngaio Marsh's best crime novels, and was the fifth to feature Roderick Alleyn as the detective. He is travelling in New Zealand on holiday, and meets up with a touring theatre company from England. At a birthday party in honour of the leading lady, her husband is killed when a surprise he had planned goes horribly wrong: a jeroboam of champagne which should have lowered from above the stage to land in a nest of ferns in front of him crashes down onto his head.

Naturally, Alleyn (politely) takes charge of the ensuing investigation and finds the killer. The book is a classic thirties detective story, and is well-written for the genre. Alleyn is not as annoying as many of the detectives who abound in such fiction, which certainly helps, though one of the features which I find most difficult to swallow is present: the way in which the detective becomes coincidentally involved in so many murders. With a detective who is a policeman, this is not usually so much of a problem, but for him to become involved with the troupe before the murder while on holiday requires a stretch of the suspension of disbelief. (This happens a lot in Ngaio Marsh, mainly so that the main characters are introduced and have some relationship to the series principals before the murder takes place rather than being first encountered in the course of the police investigation.)

That said, the book is an interesting puzzle, and far better written than the average. This is partly due to Ngaio Marsh being interested in her characters (unlike Agatha Christie), and partly because of the stage setting. A touring company makes an ideal background for this kind of puzzle, and is far less hackneyed than the country house-body in a library school. Of course, Marsh was very interested in and involved with the theatre; two out of the five Alleyn novels published by this date have theatrical settings (the others having murders in a country house, an operating theatre and a cult's place of worship).

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