Thursday, 1 July 1999

Ngaio Marsh: When In Rome (1970)

Edition: William Collins, 1972
Review number: 280

Despite an initial feeling that When in Rome would join the list of below standard Marsh novels, it did grow on me as entertaining crime fiction as I read it. There are jarring elements - the offensive portrayal of the Italian police as incompetent and corrupt, the stereotypical drugs scene - but these are not so obvious as to totally destroy the reader's enjoyment.

Alleyn has travelled to Rome as part of an ongoing investigation into international drug dealing. His major lead in Rome points to one Sebastian Mailer, who works as a guide, taking exclusive groups to lesser know sights and the best nightlife, for an exorbitant fee. This activity is really a cover for supplying wealthy clients with drugs, while also being a lucrative operation in its own right.

Mailer has managed to get a hold over the famous author Barnaby Grant, whose latest novel is set in Rome. Through this he is able to get Grant to agree to act as the guide on a tour of the places that inspired scenes in the book. Alleyn joins the tour, posing as a fan. It is while the party is going round a church and the earlier archaeology excavated beneath it that Mailer disappears. Then a body is discovered, and Alleyn becomes involved in the Italian investigation into the murder as well as its connections with his own enquiries.

One particular problem in this novel is that for the first time I caught Marsh "cheating". She does not pass on to the reader information received by Alleyn in a report which is fairly crucial to a speedy solution to the case, just hinting at it in a summary of the report. The fact that I have not noticed this sort of thing in her other novels indicates that either she hasn't done it before or is usually more subtle about covering it up (and I suspect the latter).

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