Friday, 22 May 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Overture to Death (1939)

Edition: Fontana, 1972
Review number: 52

This novel could be cited as among the most typical crime fiction novels of all time. The murder takes place in a small village at an amateur theatrical production; everybody in the cast of the play can be suspected; the characters consist of the squire and his son, the rector and his daughter (involved in a romance with the squire's son which is opposed by their fathers), two elderly spinsters in jealous rivalry for the affections of the rector, the village doctor and his mistress.

The murder itself is contrived through an ingenious booby-trap, originally set up by a small boy to fire a water pistol through the cloth front of a piano onto the player when the "soft pedal" is pressed; the murderer replaced the water pistol with a gun. As the pianist was changed at the last minute, the question to be answered by Alleyn is whether the attack was meant for the original or replacement pianist.

Overture to Death is certainly very competently done, but it feels in the end as though something is lacking: the elements are so much part of the genre that it cannot stand out as particularly original (even considering that it was written over fifty years ago). But these criticisms don't stop the book being an enjoyable read; after all, originality is not altogether the prime concern for genre addicts.

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