Light Thickens (1982) – Ngaio Marsh

Does a mystery written in 1982 qualify as a Golden Age mystery? Well, sure – if it’s the final book in a series that was begun in 1934 and still keeps the spirit of the Golden Age alive.

Light Thickens, set in the Dolphin Theatre, where in 1966, Inspector Roderick Alleyn solved an earlier case (Death at the Dolphin aka Killer Dolphin), has some of the same theatrical characters as the earlier book, as well as Alleyn’s usual sidekick Inspector Fox, and his two assistants, Sergeants Bailey and Thompson. Marsh, who had many years of experience as a producer/director of Shakespearean drama in New Zealand, takes the reader through every stage of putting the show together from first rehearsals to opening night and beyond. When the murder occurs, the cast and crew constitute a limited group of suspects, just as one would find in a typical English country house mystery.

Of course, these are theatre folks, people who are trained in the art of deception and who are full of petty motives to do each other in. And the play is MacBeth, a play about murder, long considered an unlucky play to perform. (Reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking about Season Two of the wonderful TV series, Slings and Arrows, and the mayhem that MacBeth caused that theatre company.)

Like many Marsh novels, the murder doesn’t occur till late in the story (page 141 in my book of 232 pages), so by the time Alleyn appears, we have had a long while to get to know all the characters. Depending on how interested the reader is in the backstage workings of a play, this can be a plus or a minus. Several people in my readers’ group felt that the first part of the book, which described the intricacies of the putting on the play, was fascinating, but the detective work in the second part was fairly routine; others felt the first part was tedious and the story didn’t come alive until the murder. (I’m one of the first group.)

The murder itself is wonderfully bizarre, in true Marsh fashion, and there are plenty of clues and red herrings. But the solution to the mystery comes fairly abruptly and is less than satisfying. That Light Thickens was written in the last year of her life (and published posthumously) may explain the ending: perhaps Marsh simply didn’t get to revise and elaborate the final chapter.

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