Overture to Death (1939) – Ngaio Marsh
Overture to Death is a perfect example of Golden Age Ngaio Marsh.
Continuing to play catch-up with Ngaio Marsh after years of neglecting her books — see Clutch of Constables and Surfeit of Lampreys (Death of a Peer) also reviewed on this blog — I enjoyed this one very much.
Like many of Marsh’s books, this one begins with a comedy of manners; this time it is a small group of countryfolk engaged in putting on a play. The interior monologs of all of the players are shown in amusing detail. As in many of Marsh’s books, the death of one of the players doesn’t occur till eighty pages in, and Scotland Yard isn’t called in to investigate till page 93. Enter Inspector Alleyn and his team.
This being a Golden Age mystery, much is made of timetables; clues like squeaky gates, onions, and phone calls abound. Alleyn even gets to assemble all his suspects in one place and point out the highlights of the case. Marsh is known for killing characters off in bizarre ways, and Overture to Death is a great example of this. Additionally, I think Marsh plays scrupulously fair with her readers.
The only thing that surprised me about this book was the totally unsympathetic portrayal of two of the characters who were middle-aged spinsters. Since Marsh herself was a spinster all her life, and was certainly middle-aged by the time she wrote this book, I would have expected a less vitriolic characterization. But perhaps it was only the holier-than-thou, sexually repressed spinster whom Marsh could not bear, and these two certainly fit that description.