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Mystery author #35: Ngaio Marsh (WARNING: Very long post)

It may well surprise some to discover that until last month I had not read a single book by this illustrious mystery author, whose name is often mentioned in the same sentence as those of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but it is really not surprising when you consider that Marsh's books seem to be mostly out of print (which makes me wonder: if she is as good as Christie and Sayers, why are her books not in print? Perhaps they are between printing cycles?). It is to be hoped that they will be re-issued as the ones I read are quite entertaining and certainly better than some of the modern mysteries I have been reading lately.

The author review is based on the first five books in the series. It will be interesting to see if my opinions change with further reading.

I will only review the books briefly and rate them. I will discuss the things they have in common in the author review.

Series detective: Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the Scotland Yard. In four of these early books he is assisted by journalist and murder magnet Nigel Bathgate.
Type of investigator: Police
Type of mystery: Murder

Title: A Man Lay Dead
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1934
Setting & time: An English country house and London, UK; 1930s

Story: When a man is murdered, stabbed with his own dagger, in the middle of a murder mystery game at a country house, several of those present are suspects (as per formula). It is up to Inspector Alleyn and the local police to solve the case, aided by journalist Nigel Bathgate, who is one of the few guests in the house who is not under suspicion. The solution depends on a very thorough investigation of alibis.

Review: This is a country house mystery that also features a secret society and mixes together two investigations, thus going somewhat against the formula for such mysteries, but not in a totally bad way. The secret society aspect is in fact quite entertaining. The the means of getting the murderer to confess are rather funny.

Rating: An interesting country house mystery and novel of manners with a touch of melodrama. 3 stars.

Title: Enter a Murderer
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1935
Setting & time: The Unicorn Theatre, London, UK; 1930s

Story: An unpopular actor is murdered on stage during a show, and Alleyn and Bathgate are in the audience. Several members of the company had reasons to want to harm the victim.

Review: While not a country house mystery, this story follows the same rules: a limited number of suspects within a limited space. As in the previous story, the solution depends on a careful investigation of the movements of the characters, and the solution will be a surprise to many readers.

Rating: A theatrical mystery with quite as many twists and turns as a good play. 4 stars.

Title: The Nursing Home Murder
No. in series: 3
Year of publication: 1935
Setting & time: London, UK; 1930s

Story: When a government minister is murdered during surgery, several of those present in the operating room had reason to want him dead, including his jilted former lover, the young doctor who loves her, and a nurse who is a member of the Communist party. Alleyn solves the case, aided by Nigel and his girlfriend.

Review: I found this installation in the series rather melodramatic. The murderer was obvious from his first interview with Alleyn onwards, as was his motive but not his method, which was ingenious, although of a kind that stretches the reader's credulity a bit, but no more than some of the Sherlock Holmes plot devices.

Rating: One of the less entertaining books in the Alleyn series. 2+ stars.

Title: Death in Ecstacy
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1936
Setting & time: London, UK; 1930s

Story: Nigel Bathgate gatecrashes a cult and witnesses a poison murder during a religious ceremony. He calls in Alleyn, and before long they are deep into an investigation where nearly all of the inner circle of the cult had reason to want the victim dead.

Review: This is an interesting look into cultism, with several interesting characters and explanations of why they joined, and a look at how a cult can as easily fall apart as any business venture. However, the murder method was such that it was quite uncertain that the poison would kill the right person and not the wrong person or indeed wipe out the whole inner circle of the cult (given how little of this particular poison is needed to kill someone), and so it was left to chance for the right person to ingest it. This I don't like in mysteries.

Rating: An interesting rather than entertaining story with a too risky murder method. 2+ stars.

Title: Vintage Murder
No. in series: 5
Year of publication: 1937
Setting & time: New Zealand; 1930s

Story: Alleyn is on holiday in New Zealand and has been travelling with a troupe of actors on tour. He is therefore present at a dinner to honour the leading lady, when a stunt goes seriously wrong and the company manager is killed. Alleyn discovers that the apparent accident was in fact a murder. The local police are thrilled to have the famous Alleyn in their midst, and he is invited to help with the investigation. This time, only two people seem to have had good reason to want the man dead, but both are unlikely killers and have solid alibis.

Review: Another theatrical mystery, and the first book in the series not to feature Nigel Bathgate. The murder method is ingenious and timing and minute examination of the witness statements are all important in solving the murder.

Rating: An entertaining puzzle plot. 4 stars.

Author review:
Based on my reading of these 5 books, I found Marsh to be a rather uneven author. Her writing in all 5 books is quite literary, her characters well written and believable for the most part and the dialogue often witty and clever. She reminds me of Georgette Heyer and Josephine Tey in that respect.
The unevenness is in the mystery plots, which sometimes stretch the imagination a bit too much, while at other times they are intricate and well thought out. All of the plots are puzzle plots where the events leading up to the murders are looked at, often from several different angles and with increasing exactness (tediously so at times), and the solutions depend on careful examination of facts, location, timing and alibis, with a touch of intuition.

Characterisation is one of Marsh's strong points.
Alleyn is charming, likable and sophisticated without being arrogant, with a tendency towards flippancy when least expected, that often completely takes people by surprise and puts them off their guard. I find the way he sometimes addresses his staff rather disrespectful, but the way Marsh writes it, they seem to accept the diminutives of their names he uses when speaking to them as being affectionate.
Nigel is a typical sidekick, i.e. a stand-in for a reader who is not stupid but gets carried away by red herrings and his feelings for the suspects. He also acts as someone for Alleyn to test his theories on.
The murderers, suspects and witnesses are mostly well-drawn and believable, and while one might confuse a character from one story with a character from another story if they are read too closely together, one is not likely to mix up characters within the same story.

Altogether, I think I will continue to read Marsh, only I am stalled right now as I want to read the books in order of publication, but I don't have the next two books and am waiting for them to pop up on either BookMooch or Ebay.


Anonymous said…
I'd forgotten about Bathgate. It is so annoying that I used to own all of these, but long since gave them away. Sounds as if it will be hard to find them again.
If you didn't yet come across Troy (first name Agatha) I would recommend persevering. She livens up the books a lot and acts both as "murder magnet" and "Alleyn magnet" as well as being pretty good on the detective skills if I recall correctly.
Bibliophile said…
One of the two books I am trying to find is the book where Alleyn and Troy first meet - as a matter of fact, I think it happens when he is returning from his New Zealand holiday, so it would be book 6 or 7.
I am lucky enough to have got hold of most of the books when someone got rid of their collection and the charity shop saw fit to put most of them in the "free books" bin, because they were old and much read. I walked out with a bag full of Alleyn books, but those two and a couple more still elude me.

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