Wednesday, 10 February 1999

Ngaio Marsh: False Scent (1960)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 205

This is one of the most theatrical of all Marsh's novels, being both about the stage and also very stagy in its setting, mostly taking place in a few rooms like a stage play. Oddly, it is missing a theatrical feature common to most (if not all) of her other novels: there is no "Cast of Characters" at the beginning.

Mary Bellamy, for thirty years the leading lady of the London stage, is about to hold a magnificent party to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. Her temperament, never the most equable, has gradually become more and more difficult; during her birthday she quarrels in turn with her long-time second lead and dress designer (who have dared to accept an engagement to work elsewhere); her adopted son, Richard, who is also the author of the plays she appears in, because he has just written his best work (with no part for her in it), and because she is jealous of his attachment to his new girlfriend, who is to be the leading lady in this new play; her manager and director, who have agreed to put on Richard's new play; and her husband, who asked her not to wear a perfume he dislikes intensely, given to her as a birthday present. All these arguments come to a head with a ferocious tantrum during the party - and then she is found dead, rather gruesomely killed with a strong weed-killer put into the perfume spray.

The character of Mary Bellamy is repellent; the success of False Scent is the way that you sympathise strongly with the murderer and don't want them to be discovered. It is, however, one of Marsh's more trashy and melodramatic novels; but that doesn't stop it being fun to read.

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