Archive for Ngaio Marsh

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.


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.