Archive for the Ngaio Marsh Category

Photo Finish (1980) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , on February 26, 2018 by cshmurak

I’m still making my way through unread books of Ngaio Marsh; Photo Finish, a book late in the Roderick Alleyn series, is not one of her best, I’m sad to say. As in many of her books, there is a theatrical background, though this time it’s a performance of a new opera that is the centerpiece of the plot. There is also a New Zealand setting, but aside from one Maori character, the book could have just as well been set in any country. Essentially, it’s a manor house mystery, with a group of people isolated in a large mansion on an island in the middle of a storm-racked lake. Of course, a murder occurs.

Superintendent Roderick Alleyn just happens to be there because his wife Troy has been commissioned to paint a portrait of the internationally celebrated opera star known as “La Sommita.” Loosely based on Maria Callas, Isabella Sommita is the mistress of millionaire Montague Reece, who has built the mansion for her. The diva has been stalked for years by a photographer known as “Strix,” and he may be on the island too. The debut of a new opera, written expressly for Sommita by an infatuated young musician, is the occasion for the gathering at the mansion.

Alleyn, of course, does what he can when the murder occurs, though he has no official standing as a police officer. Troy doesn’t do anything much except make a few sketches, and later, inexplicably, make a few beds. None of the other characters really comes to life in this book. Additionally, the fact that Mr. Reece’s male secretary is gay is constantly alluded to in the most unpleasant way.

Still, the story carries the reader along to its logical conclusion, and Marsh is scrupulously fair in providing clues. Photo Finish was a nice diversion while I was travelling, but it’s not a book that I’d recommend to someone who’s never read Marsh’s mysteries.


Night at the Vulcan (1951) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh on August 27, 2017 by cshmurak

Back to the Golden Age with Ngaio Marsh! This is another of her mysteries with a theatrical background, (see my review of Light Thickens), and her long experience as a producer/director is evident here. For example:

“There is nothing that gives one so strong a sense of theatre from the inside as the sound of invisible players in action. The disembodied and remote voices, projected at an unseen mark, the uncanny quiet offstage, the smells and the feeling that the walls and the dust listen, the sense of a simmering expectancy; all these together make a corporate life so that the theatre itself seems to breathe and pulse and give out a warmth.” [I wondered if it should be ‘corporal’ rather than ‘corporate’. A typo?]

In this book, the theatre is the Vulcan, recently renamed and reopened because a murder took place there years earlier. [This may have been in an earlier book in the series that  I haven’t read or have forgotten.] We follow a cast of players through two dress rehearsals and into opening night, and it’s not entirely clear which of the company will be the victim. But finally one of them doesn’t make it to the final curtain, and the police are called in to determine whether the death was a suicide or a murder. As with many Golden Age mysteries, there are a limited number of suspects; as with many of Marsh’s books, the death occurs quite late in the book (page 140 in my edition) and Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard doesn’t appear till several pages after that (page 147).

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Martyn Tarne, a young actress.  Martyn is similar to Roberta Grey in Death of a Peer in that she has just arrived from New Zealand and sees London from that perspective, as Marsh herself must once have done. Indeed, one of the young Lampreys from Death of a Peer is actually a character in this book.

In good Golden Age form, Alleyn gets to assemble all the suspects and explain the case to them. I had narrowed down the suspects to two likely characters, one of whom I really didn’t want to be guilty, and was still surprised by the final answer. This was a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying mystery.



Golden Age Mysteries: My Favorites

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Dorothy L. Sayers, Golden Age Mysteries, History of Mystery, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , on May 13, 2016 by cshmurak

The Golden Age of Mystery is usually defined as the period between World War I and World War II, or roughly 1920-1940; some people would extend it into the early 1950s. As for me, I like to think of the Golden Age as beginning with Trent’s Last Case in 1913, interrupted by WWI, and then continuing into the early 1950s (so I can include the best of Josephine Tey, who’s clearly a Golden Age author). Below I list my favorites –  a subjective list, of course. The order is somewhat random, I confess, but I think the first three are truly my top three.

  1. 99661574Trent’s Last Case (1913) by E.C. Bentley – The book that introduced a detective who’s fallible and human, at a time when most mystery authors were creating omniscient Sherlock Holmes clones. Read my review of it here. So many Golden Age authors (Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie among others) admired this book as one of the outstanding pieces of detective fiction of all time, and Sayers even copied an important plot point for her first mystery, Whose Body.

  2. strong poisonStrong Poison (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers – The beginning of the Lord Peter/Harriet Vane romance as well as a well-plotted and humorous mystery. Though others may prefer Gaudy Night or The Nine Tailors – both of which I’ve enjoyed – I find them too weighed down by feminist rhetoric or showy scholarship (into bell-ringing!). You can find my review of Strong Poison here.
  3. bewiseTo Love and Be Wise (1950) by Josephine Tey – It’s so difficult to choose just one of Tey’s books, but this is a sentimental favorite. I love Brat Farrar too, and many people would say it was her best book, but I just can’t choose a book without Alan Grant! And as for The Daughter of Time, I find it brilliant on some days and tedious on others. Reviews of all three: TL&BW, BF, DoT
  4. longdivorceThe Long Divorce (1951) by Edmund Crispin – Many people would choose The Moving Toyshop as Crispin’s best book, but I’ve never liked it that much; maybe the over-the-top finale is just too much for me. For complete hilarity, I’d go with Crispin’s Buried for Pleasure instead. Long Divorce, on the other hand, while still quite humorous, puts the emphasis on the mystery, as Crispin’s Oxford don detective, Gervase Fen, travelling incognito as “Mr. Datchery,” solves a case involving poison pen letters and murder. People who enjoy humor that is eccentric and scholarly (though never pompous) will enjoy this one.
  5. 51mru5rxXfL._SX367_BO1,204,203,200_Flowers for the Judge (1936) by Margery Allingham – Allingham wrote so many novels about Albert Campion (and she kept on writing them through the mid-1960s) that it’s difficult to choose. I really like Sweet Danger, in which Albert meets Amanda Fitton for the first time, and Dancers in Mourning (which I review here). But Flowers for the Judge is especially entertaining, both for its look at the world of publishing and for the amazing disappearance in broad daylight of one of the members of the publishing house.
  6. MarshConstables_Clutch of Constables (1968) by Ngaio Marsh – Like Allingham, Marsh is another of the great British writers who continued to write Golden Age mysteries long after the period was over (until 1982, in fact). I might have chosen Artists in Crime (1938) instead, the book in which Roderick Alleyn meets Agatha Troy –  notice a certain romantic theme in my favorites (see Strong Poison and Sweet Danger mentioned above) – or Death of a Peer (1940) (reviewed here) for its exuberant silliness – another theme in my favorites (see Buried for Pleasure above and Appleby’s End below). But I truly love this one that features Troy in the leading role. Here’s my review.
  7. farewellThe Long Farewell (1958) by Michael Innes – Like Marsh, Michael Innes wrote Golden Age mysteries from the 1930s to the 1980s. Some of them are very funny (like Appleby’s End with its bizarre train ride); others – chiefly those written in the 1940s –  are more like spy novels, and some are pure mysteries. The Long Farewell is in the last category and shows Oxford scholar Innes at his best, as his detective Sir John Appleby investigates the suicide (or was it murder?) of a bigamous Shakespearean scholar. In addition to his Appleby novels, Innes wrote a series of books about Charles Honeybath – most of which I don’t like – and a few non-series books that are very good, particularly A Change of Heir and Christmas at Candleshoe. (The Disney studio bought the title, Candleshoe, and then threw away the book, so the film and the book have nothing much in common.)
  8. Trial&ErrorTrial and Error (1937) by Anthony Berkeley – Berkeley wrote a series of good mysteries in the 1920s and 1930s featuring the writer/sleuth Roger Sheringham. In 1929 he created a character named Ambrose Chitterwick (“a mild little man of no particular appearance”) and placed him in a Sheringham book, The Poisoned Chocolates Case.  An unlikely detective, Chitterwick appeared in two more of Berkeley’s novels, The Piccadilly Murder (1929) and Trial and Error (1937). For me, it’s really a toss-up between Poisoned Chocolates and Trial and Error. But I’m choosing Trial and Error for the uniqueness of the plot, wherein a murderer tries to prove he committed the murder so an innocent man won’t be convicted of the crime. Berkeley also wrote under various pseudonyms; as Francis Iles, he was the creator of the creepy Before the Fact, the basis of the Hitchcock film, Suspicion.
  9.  AdrianThe List of Adrian Messenger (1959) by Philip MacDonald – Starting with The Rasp (1924), MacDonald wrote a series of mysteries in the 1920s and 1930s about detective Anthony Gethryn, then brought him back for one last bow in this book, a finalist for the 1960 Edgar Award.  Adrian Messenger gives a list of ten men’s names to a friend at Scotland Yard; then the plane carrying Messenger is blown up, and Gethryn must investigate each of the ten men to find if any of them is still alive and which one is the murderer. This was made into a film of the same name in 1963, starring George C. Scott as Gethryn, and featuring people like Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Robert Mitchum in fairly obvious disguises. The movie is fun, though not nearly as clever as the book.
  10. HouseoftheArrowThe House of the Arrow (1924) by A.E.W. Mason – Mason is most often remembered – if he’s remembered at all – as the author of The Four Feathers, a wonderful adventure story. But he also wrote a series of five detective novels featuring Inspector Hanaud, an eccentric French detective who may have been a precursor of Hercule Poirot. The House of the Arrow may be Mason’s best, though At the Villa Rose, written in 1910, is a close second. In Arrow, Hanaud must help a young heiress prove that she hasn’t murdered the woman who left her all her fortune. Publisher and critic Bennett Cerf said of this book: “Its startling but thoroughly logical conclusion, which took me completely by surprise, still impresses me as the cleverest piece of literary sleight-of-hand I have ever read in a detective story.” There have been three British film versions of this novel (1930, 1940, 1953), none of which I’ve ever seen, but I think I’m going to try to track them down!

All of these books are available online, many as e-books as well as paperbacks, and a few others have been recently reprinted by wonderful publishers like Felony & Mayhem or Stratus. Here are links to their pages on Amazon:

Trent’s Last Case

Strong Poison

To Love and Be Wise

Brat Farrar

The Long Divorce

Buried for Pleasure

Flowers for the Judge

Sweet Danger

Dancers in Mourning

Artists in Crime

Clutch of Constables

Death of a Peer

The Long Farewell

Appleby’s End

Poisoned Chocolates Case

Trial and Error

List of Adrian Messenger

House of the Arrow

At the Villa Rose

Note: If you make a purchase using one of these links, I receive no payment; however, at no cost to you, my daughter’s green living blog,, will receive a small commission.

Light Thickens (1982) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, History of Mystery, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , on September 14, 2012 by cshmurak

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.

Overture to Death (1939) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , , on July 6, 2012 by cshmurak

     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.

Death of a Peer [also published as A Surfeit of Lampreys] (1940) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , , on June 28, 2011 by cshmurak

Many of Ngaio Marsh’s books start out as comedies of manners; halfway through (or even later) a murder occurs, and Inspector Roderick Alleyn shows up to solve the case. Life can then return to its original comedic form.  Death of a Peer is a prime example of Marsh’s talent for this type of mystery.

The Lampreys are a family living hopelessly above their means, relying on an older brother —  who inherited the family title and money —  to get them out of their financial difficulties. They are a charming but exasperating group whose idea of economizing is to go to the Riviera off-season, and of course not one of them is equipped to earn an income. When Lord Wutherwood, the titled brother, refuses further assistance and is gruesomely murdered, most of the Lampreys come under suspicion, and it is Alleyn’s job to unravel the lies and evasions and find the killer.

One of the few non-Lampreys in the book is Roberta Grey, a young woman from New Zealand, through whose eyes the reader sees many of the events in the story.  Marsh describes Roberta’s reactions to her first arrival in London so vividly that there is little doubt that it is Marsh’s own delight in first visiting London that is being portrayed.

In classic Golden Age fashion, Marsh presents the reader with floor plans and timetables, which might be helpful in solving the crime or perhaps in misdirecting our attention.  This book was on several lists of the Best Mysteries of the 20th Century (notably that of The London Times and the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association), but I was not that impressed with the mystery. It is, however, an example of Marsh at her comedy-of-manners best, and I greatly enjoyed it for that.

Clutch of Constables (1968) – Ngaio Marsh

Posted in Classic Mystery Reviews, Golden Age Mysteries, Mysteries, Ngaio Marsh with tags , , , on June 30, 2010 by cshmurak

Of all the Golden Age grande dames, Ngaio Marsh is the one I’ve read least. Somehow, Roderick Alleyn never captured my imagination or my loyalty the way that Lord Peter Wimsey or Albert Campion did. But now I find myself tracking down Marsh’s books and devouring them, to make up for lost time.

Clutch of Constables was written in 1968, a good twenty years after the Golden Age of British mystery ended, but it has all the hallmarks of a Golden Age novel: a small cast of eccentric characters, any one of which is a likely suspect, a clever amateur detective, and even a plodding police inspector — but is he really the plodder that he appears to be? There’s a map and a cast of characters at the front of the book too.

Troy Alleyn, the famous painter and wife of Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, decides on impulse to take a short river cruise while her husband is off on a trip of his own. Once on board the Zodiac riverboat, she finds that the person whose cancelled reservation enabled her to get a room at the last minute has been found murdered in London. Soon after the cruise begins, another passenger drowns. Was she also murdered? Troy’s letters to Alleyn convince him that she too may be in danger, and that one of her fellow passengers may be the notorious criminal Foljambe, aka The Jampot.

The reader gets a clue early on that Foljambe has a physical attribute that immediately identifies him, though what it is isn’t revealed. Naturally, it turns out that every passenger on the boat has some notable feature: one is black, one has a “not unattractive cast” in one eye, one walks with a limp, one is missing an eye, and one wears a hearing aid. So which one is Foljambe?

The pace of the book may seem slow to readers used to slam-bang action, but I found this leisurely cruise down the unnamed River an intriguing and entertaining read.