Mary Bellamy is a star of the London stage – possibly a fading star, but a star, nonetheless. So when she dies with a faceful of insect repellent at her fiftieth birthday party, Superintendent Alleyn investigates. But is seems that everyone at the party, from her husband to her designer, seems to have a reason for disliking the temperamental old battleaxe – but did anyone have a strong enough reason to murder her?
Ngaio Marsh was a contemporary of Agatha Christie, writing 32 novels featuring Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard from 1934 to 1982. They have been dramatised by the BBC with Patrick Malahide as Alleyn (and in New Zealand, starring George “Wexford” Baker) and she is regarded as one of the four “Queens of Crime” – alongside Christie, Sayers and Allingham. However looking around these days, you’d be pressed to find any of her works on sale in a bookshop.
False Scent, from 1960, is the 21st Alleyn mystery and features a recurring theme in Marsh’s work, the theatre. After a disappointing encounter with Clutch of Constables a number of months ago, is this enough to convince me that Marsh needs a re-evaluation?
Um… no, not really.
A book of two halves, this one, and I’m rather surprised at myself as to which way round my opinions fall.
You see, one thing that always bugs me in a whodunnit is when nobody-dunnit for too much of the book – i.e. we wait around an interminable amount of time before someone drops dead and the author has time to hide the clues when you don’t even know what you’re looking for. It takes about 100 pages for Mary Bellamy to get murdered, and we spend a lot of time meeting her inner circle and getting a flavour for her life and her faults. And that’s the best bit of the book. It’s really well written and very involving. Then Alleyn turns up.
You see, I find Alleyn boring. He doesn’t demonstrate any interesting characteristics at all, apart from his odd nickname for his sidekick, Inspector Fox – “Foxkin”. Weird. And he also, in this book at least, is thick. Very, very thick. There’s an obvious method as to how the murder was committed that a child would spot and you find yourself astonished when Alleyn twigs the important bit (p200 out of 240) because it’s so obvious you assumed he’d realised it all the time and just hadn’t mentioned it.
Marsh cheats a little too – once you realise the given thing, the murderer becomes pretty clear if you were given the witness statements clearly. Maybe I had dozed off by this point, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t share these in order to keep a lot more suspects in the frame.
There’s also a certain inevitability about the shape of the plot and while I had two candidates for the murderer – an interesting outside bet and a predictable one, unfortunately it was the second who proved to be the ne’er-do-well.
It picks up the lovely tone of the opening section for a rather moving epilogue, but it’s too late to save it, I’m afraid.
One day, I’ll cross paths with Ms Marsh again – not in the near future, however.