Tuesday, 23 June 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)

Edition: Fontana, 1968
Review number: 72

Another traditional crime novel, written during a period in which it is clear that Marsh was slipping more and more into re-using the formulaic plot ideas of the genre. Death and the Dancing Footman is from the snowbound-upper-class-houseparty subgenre; the houseparty is gathered by its host, who wants to bring together seven people who have good reason to kill each other (two brothers, lifelong rivals, and the girl who has jilted one for the other; their mother, whose face was ruined by an experimenting plastic surgeon; the plastic surgeon in question; his secret wife, who runs a beauty parlour and is having an affair with one of the brothers; and a rival beauty parlour owner). He has also invited Aubrey Mandrake, famous dramatist, whose shameful secret he has uncovered (he was originally named Stanley Footling), to act as an impartial observer of this grotesque "experiment in psychology".

Naturally, things go wrong; a series of dangerous practical jokes ends up with a death. The characters then have to live with each other for several days before the snow thaws and they can call in Inspector Alleyn to solve the mystery. (He naturally happens to be staying at a house nearer than the next town, from which the houseparty is still cut off for the time being.) The problem is that the murder appears impossible; the man accused of the practical jokes was in his room having taken sleeping tablets, and the rest of the household has an alibi provided by one of the servants, who stood outside the door dancing by himself to the music coming from the radio. (This is an activity I would have thought would lead Alleyn to arrest him immediately as a dangerous lunatic.)

Marsh writes well enough; she could obviously churn out novels within the genre with no trouble. Her best work is not completely contrained by the conventions of the form, but this novel is not really her best work.

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