Tuesday, 25 September 2001

Ngaio Marsh and Henry Jellett: The Nursing Home Murder (1935)

Edition: Fontana, 1961
Review number: 944

Marsh's second novel is her only one written in collaboration; its unique setting for one of her stories suggests that this was Jellett's major contribution. It is also one of her poorest books, full of wild coincidences and unbelievable characters.

The story takes a scare about anarchist terrorists as its starting point. The Home Secretary, Sir Dereck O'Callaghan, drafts a bill to curb these gangs, and, because of its importance, continues working despite appendicitis to try and push it through. Eventually, he collapses in the House of Commons and is rushed to hospital, where he dies during the operation.

The first - and biggest - coincidence is that the surgeon, who has been O'Callaghan's doctor for a long time, has just bitterly argued with him about his treatment of an ex-mistress, and sent him a letter a couple of days earlier full of threats. The ex-mistress is one of the nurses; another nurse is an anarchist who believes O'Callaghan's death would be a blow for the cause. To make things even less likely, the pre-operation discussion mentions a play cuurently in the West End in which a surgeon ends up operating on his worst enemy!

As well as these problems in the plot, the character of Alleyn is still experimental, and is a great deal more camp than his later portrayal, which is disconcerting to a reader used to the more mature novels. The pre-NHS private hospital setting is interesting as a little piece of social history, but that is really the best that can be said for The Nursing Home Murder.

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