Monday, 17 August 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Final Curtain (1947)

Edition: Penguin, 1961
Review number: 103

The war is finally over, and Alleyn is returning from New Zealand - where the previous two books in the series, Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool, are set - to join his wife in London. Just as Troy is expecting him back any day, she receives an extremely pressing invitation: distinguished actor Sir Henry Ancred wishes to commission her to paint his portrait at his family seat, Ancreton. This invitation is occasioned by Sir Henry receiving the (inaccurate) news that the nation commissioned Troy to paint a portrait of one of his friends and rivals.

Truth to tell, though he may have been a magnificent actor, Sir Henry's talent could never have matched his conceit. As far as he was concerned, the nation has never been as quick to recognise his status as great man of the stage as it should have been; even his knighthood is not a grateful acknowledgment of his stature but was obtained by the somewhat unexpected inheritance of a baronetcy from a distant cousin.

In the end, Troy accepts and travels to Ancreton, where she is plunged into the midst of a bizarre family gathering; theatrical eccentricity is part and parcel of being an Ancred. The family (other than Sir Henry) is united only in their dislike of Sonia Orrincourt, a beautiful blonde plucked from the chorus by Sir Henry, virtually in his dotage but likely to step into a second marriage at any moment - particularly when his family enrage him.

A series of unpleasant practical jokes is followed by the death of Sir Henry; Troy suspects it is something more serious than eating crayfish when suffering from a stomach disorder. Luckily, Alleyn has just now returned, and he is able to disentangle the whole complex plot.

Final Curtain is one of the better known Ngaio Marsh novels, and it is the first I ever read by her. It is not one of her best, though; it shows distinct signs of a return to the formulaic house party crime novel she was writing before the two set in New Zealand. It has an upper class family only rivalled in grotesque eccentricity by the Lampreys (in Surfeit of Lampreys) and the sort of implausible puzzle gently mocked by Michael Innes in There Came Both Mist and Snow. As an example of the classic detection genre, you chould hardly chose a novel more typical, but Marsh can offer far better.

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