Series and no.: Inspector Roderick Alleyn (Detective superintendent in this book), no. 27/32
Genre: Country murder house mystery
Setting & time: England, contemporary
Agatha Troy, Roderick Alleyn’s famous painter wife, is at a country house to paint the owner’s portrait. As Alleyn is working on an extradition case in Australia, she accepts an invitation to spend Christmas there (there is no mention of her son, Ricky, which I find strange). Then a servant disappears under suspicious circumstances just after Alleyn has returned and accepted an invitation to join the house party over Christmas. Although the investigation of the case rightfully belongs to the local police, the master of the house is able to force Alleyn to take over the investigation, which he reluctantly does.
When I read this book I found myself getting irked at some discrepancies in the story when compared with the previous books. Alleyn, who has hitherto not hesitated to poke his nose into cases that are really no concern of his – such as in the last book before this one – is in this one strangely reluctant to take over this case and in fact gets quite stroppy when forced into it. And when I saw a date that fixed the time period in which this story takes place I found myself going “oh, no!” because it is contemporary with the publication date, which would mean that Alleyn is still working as a police officer in his mid-to-late seventies, but with all the prowess of a man in his forties. Much better to have only alluded to the time period and continued in the timeless vein, in my opinion.
Apart from these little details, this is quite a good mystery. Marsh creates an atmosphere of tension and hostility, partly with the cast of characters and partly by setting the story in the middle of winter with miserable weather. She leads the reader astray with ease and well-planted red herrings and I would say she manages quite deftly to draw attention away from a key clue that is dropped quite early in the story. I know that if I hadn’t been wearing my sleuthing glasses I would certainly have missed it. As it was, it still took a couple of chapters before I realised what was going on. After that it was just a matter of seeing how Alleyn solved it. 4 stars.
Awards: Finalist 1973 Edgar Award for Best Mystery