Thursday, 30 April 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Death at the Bar (1939)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 39

Given the normal upper class settings of classic detective stories, you might well expect Death at the Bar to be set in the legal world of the Temple. In fact, it is set in the public bar of a pub in a small Cornwall village.

The main protagonists are a group of friends from London, who often spend their holidays in the village: Luke Watchman, an eminent lawyer (so that type of bar does come into it a bit), Sebastian Parish, actor, and Norman Cubitt, painter, who is painting a portrait of Parish in the countryside near the village.

A newcomer to the village since the previous summer is Robert Legge, who makes his living as agent for a philately company, and who is secretary of the Polperro Left movement. The other members of this extreme socialist group include Will Pomeroy, son of the owner of the pub, and Decima Moore, a farmer's daughter who is now engaged to Will and who the previous summer had an affair with Watchman.

As well as stamp collecting, Legge is an expert darts player; he has a trick which involves putting darts between the fingers of a hand held up on the darts board. He attempts this trick on Watchman, and things go very wrong when Legge cuts one of his fingers and Watchman dies, apparently poisoned by cyanide smeared on the head of the dart.

As you would expect, a thoroughly professional crime novel, spoilt perhaps by the implausibility of the initially accepted method of murder (how much cyanide could have got into the body from the dart tip?). It is not as good as some of the preceding Alleyn novels, and it does seem rather less believable. Maybe Ngaio Marsh was less familiar with Cornish pubs than with fashionable painters' studios.

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