Thursday, 6 May 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Death at the Dolphin (1967)

Edition: Fontana, 1972
Review number: 245

In Death at the Dolphin we return to familiar Ngaio Marsh territory, and to a higher standard of writing, after a sequence containing some of her worst novels. Like some of the best of her earlier works, Death at the Dolphin is set in the London theatre world, or rather, Marsh's slightly fanciful, old-fashioned version of it. The Dolphin is an abandoned theatre, damaged by bombing during the war, which is more or less on the point of being redeveloped by its current owner, the tycoon Vladimir Conducis. The moderately successful director and playwright Peregrine Jay, while in the area, goes to see round it, borrowing the key from the estate agent. While there, he falls into the water-filled hole left by the bomb explosion, and nearly drowns. He is rescued by Conducis, who takes him home and shows him his greatest treasure, a Jacobean child's glove which is accompanied by documentation purporting to show it to have been made for Hamnet, the son of William Shakespeare who died still a child.

Inspired by the glove, Jay writes his best play to date, dealing with the relationships between Shakespeare and his family and those people mentioned in the Sonnets, Mr W.H. and the Dark Lady. Conducis allows the refurbishment of the Dolphin, and Jay's play is put on there (directed by the writer himself). The only interference made by Conducis is to insist on the casting of one Hartly Grove as Mr W.H.; in some ways, this works well (he is the actor Jay had in mind when writing the part), but it introduces a divisive element into the cast. This is because Grove's main hobby is to spend his time winding up other actors, particularly the lead Marcus Knight, famous for his temperamental nature.

The play goes on, and is a success, particularly with the glove as an exhibit in a glass case in the theatre. But then disaster strikes, as an apparent robbery goes badly wrong with the murder of the night watchman and serious injury to the child actor playing Hamnet Shakespeare.

Death at the Dolphin is something of an exception to the general rules that tend to govern the quality of Marsh's novels. It is set in one of her standard backgrounds, and one that is somewhat stylised in her portrayal; and it contains a reference to death in the title. Its success is perhaps due to the fact that despite Marsh's love of the stage, there is a considerable gap separating the previous theatre novel, Opening Night, from this one. (False Scent, which falls about midway between the two, involves members of theatrical professions, but is not really set in the world of the theatre in any essential way.)

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