Death At The Dolphin by Ngaio Marsh

Death at the Dolphin by Ngaio MarshPeregrine Jay, a playwright and director, cannot resist exploring the ruins of the Dolphin Theatre but almost falls to his death, only to be saved by a mysterious millionaire – the owner of the building who was planning to demolish it. But inspired by Jay – and the discovery of a glove that may have belonged to Shakespeare’s son – he decides to renovate the theatre and puts Jay in charge. Months later, the theatre is ready to open with a play inspired by the glove and the valuable artefact itself on display.

Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. The glove is stolen and a man lies dead. Luckily Inspector Roderick Alleyn is soon on the scene…

I’ve had issues with Ngaio Marsh in the past. Basically, I find her work dull, with some interesting set-ups but once the investigation kicks off, the books go downhill, as the personality-free Alleyn plods his way through an uninspiring mystery. So why have I come back?

Well, there’s the ongoing question as to why she’s so popular. I’ve said before how when I suggested at last year’s Bodies From The Library conference that Marsh didn’t deserve her title as one of the Queens of Crime, it didn’t go down too well with the audience. Although that may have been the suggestion that Gladys Mitchell took her place that may have caused part of the reaction… But one of the talks this year is from Stella Duffy on Theatricality in Ngaio Marsh, so I thought I’d better take a look at one of her theatre books.

So what do others think of this book? From the cover quotes:

PUNCH: “A really marvellous Marsh”.

THE SUNDAY TIMES: “A first-rate book… exceptional richness in characterisation, background and humour. Don’t miss it on any account.

And the author? According to The Sun – “The finest writer in English of the classical puzzle whodunit

Yeah – just read that last one again. The finest writer in English of the classical puzzle whodunit. This edition as published after Marsh’s death, so you can’t imply a hidden “living” into that sentence. So goodness only knows what that journalist was smoking that day. Oh, and the comments about the book are b@ll@cks too…

This is dull. Deathly dull. By the end of the book, I just didn’t give a flying monkey’s whodunit. So unimpressive, I simply can’t be bothered to say anything else about it. One to avoid.

UPDATE: Rightly or wrongly, I feel that I need to write a little more on this one. The first few comments quite clearly disagree with my rather blunt sentiments, so I thought I’d lay out my issues with the book in a little more detail – without spoilers, obviously.

The book starts promisingly, with the opening sections with Peregrine in the theatre and subsequently meeting his benefactor being intriguing. Sadly this intrigue sags until the murder happens, as the actors are, as a whole, a rather dull, predictable bunch. In other Marsh books, the pre-murder section is usually the strongest, but there’s a notable lack of tension leading up to the crime, which, at the end of the day, feels rather small. As the victim seems to be dead simply as they were in the way, I found it hard to muster up much enthusiasm for the mystery.

Once Alleyn and Fox turn up (without those nicknames, thankfully), things plod their way to the conclusion, but at times you almost forget that they’re there. I wonder – was this planned as a non-series novel at one point? There also seems to be more interest from the writer on a certain sub-plot than the crime itself – her efforts on those sections are certainly more gripping that the revelation of the murderer, which just seems to involve parading possible suspects past a witness.

Why was I so blunt about it in the first version of the review? Crushing disappointment, really.There are so many fans of her out there that I do feel that I’m missing something. Why is she mentioned in the same breath as Dame Agatha? Sayers and Allingham write in a notably different style to Christie, but Marsh, in my eyes at least, writes the same style of mystery so comparisons are inevitable, and to me, she inevitably comes up short. But the reason I keep coming back to her is to try and see why others seem to enjoy her so much – but this clearly wasn’t the book to do it.

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24 comments

    • In all seriousness, I approached this one with an open mind – as I said, I really want to be convinced by Marsh. But this one just didn’t come close. Have you read this one, by the way? I’m curious to hear the Marsh fan’s opinion of roughly where this is regarded in the canon.

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  1. I will not allow you to dampen my enjoyment of Marsh or Mitchell! We all enjoy different books. I’m not crazy about your favorite historical mysteries, although I do enjoy some.

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    • Hey, I’m not trying to say that I’m right and Marsh’s fans are wrong. But this is a poor book. A dull investigation and a killer that could have been pulled out of a hat at random. Jay is the sole interesting character in the mix – odd, as that’s Marsh’s strength. Out of curiosity, where do you rank this Marsh outing?

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      • Probably not at the top, but it has been a while. My favorite is Artists in Crime even though it is the worst portrayal of the Detective..his future wife is the strong one here.

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      • I’ve got that one on my shelf. Might take a look – I liked Troy a lot in the first half of Clutch Of Constables (until she gets relegated to a distant hotel).

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  2. @Doc

    Have you read this one, by the way?

    Yes, but probably in the early 1970s, so I can recall just two things: (a) that I enjoyed it and (b) the setup and the opening chapter(s?) with Peregrine in the wrecked theatre. The fact that I can recall (b) after all this time speaks something for the novel, does it not?

    Out of interest, I went and look at the views on Goodreads and saw the novel had a ~3.9 (out of 5) rating. This is actually pretty good for a Goodreads rating; it’s also about standard for Marsh’s novels. I was amused to notice one reviewer who thought the novel was a bit dull until Alleyn arrived on the scene, but picked up thereafter.

    I also noticed that at least two regular readers of this blog recently rated Dolphin pretty highly. Somehow they’ve failed to notice that “But this is a poor book” and that “So unimpressive, I simply can’t be bothered to say anything else about it. One to avoid.” As with music or any other field of artistic creativity, I’d say, what we like to believe are our objective evaluations are really just matters of subjectivity.

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    • As you say, everything in art is subject to the observer. I suppose my bluntness with this review was in part due to the sheer disappointment, as I was under the impression that the theatre books were some of her strongest. I’m not looking for a pure puzzle plot, or a character-driven piece, just an enjoyable read and, for whatever reason, this one failed to engage on any level.

      I agree about the first chapter, by the way – but, in my opinion, the pre-murder section drags once the play starts being developed, with a lack of tension as there’s no feel of threat in the background.

      Kate’s positive review of Dolphin was one of the reason that I picked this one, although I’ve given up on using Goodreads ratings – that 3.90 is higher than, for example, A Pocket Full Of Rye. Not sure many would agree with that.

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      • Sorry for leading you to a bad read. Have you read Scales of Justice? Think that is probably Marsh’s strongest novel I have read in terms of the puzzle and detection element.

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  3. Hi, I’m a fan of Marsh but I can see why you might find this dull – it drags in the middle and it’s fairly obvious almost from the first who the killer is. In fact, I would say that Marsh’s theatrical mysteries, while giving us an interesting view of post-war theatre, are her least successful as murder mysteries. For me her best work lies elsewhere in books such as Scales of Justice, Death at the Bar, Death in a White Tie, Singing in the Shrouds, and (if one is able to ignore the very dated racial attitudes) Black as He’s Painted. Her puzzles were never very deep but at least some of her novels have enough plot and enjoyable characterisation to keep one going to the end. But she’s never going to appeal to fans of the pure puzzle. Different strokes and all that I suppose.

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  4. It really seems that of all, Sayers and Marsh, for different reasons, really seem to bring out some very ‘animated’ responses when one dares to criticise. But I’m with you (as you know) in not really enjoying her work and finding the Alleyn books pretty dull and obvious a lot of the time. I’m glad you have gone into more detail because I always find it especially frustrating, as a fan of the genre, that some many otherwise bright and intelligent readers (who also think the Miss Silver books by Patricia Wentworth are good reads, which I find equally bewildering) get all defensive and yet often can’t really explain why. This is not to suggest anything sinister, but at least you went into detail about what you liked – too often sentiment and nostalgia can get the better of us, especially when thinking of ‘Golden Age’ books we read first in our youth. Well done Doctor 🙂

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  5. “Basically, I find her work dull, with some interesting set-ups but once the investigation kicks off, the books go downhill, as the personality-free Alleyn plods his way through an uninspiring mystery.”

    Well summed-up. You are not alone in your dislike of Marsh. I don’t think she’s a terrible writer just a pretty mediocre one. I enjoyed about the first half of Dolphin but as the story progressed I began to lose all interest.

    “The finest writer in English of the classical puzzle whodunit” – You’ll find a blurb like this on at least 70 per cent of (classic) mysteries. Just recently I have seen Patricia Wentworth being called the best mystery writer in the English language, as well as Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham and Rex Stout.

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  6. Hi Puzzle Doctor–
    You probably don’t remember me, but I wrote a comment thanking you and some of the other mystery bloggers a long while back.
    I’ve got to agree with you about Marsh: I don’t think she is the equal of Agatha Christie, and Sayers and Allingham were writing different kinds of books (though I like both authors’ books very much). On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of Gladys Mitchell, so–well–there’s that. De gustibus, I suppose.
    As for Marsh’s best book… I loved “Final Curtain”; it’s the one book of hers that I have loved. Have you read that by any chance? It’s got a lot of Troy Alleyn in it–she’s my favorite of Marsh’s characters too–and a humdinger of a mystery plot. The solution may not be Christie-level, but I think the cluing, plot, characterizations, and deduction make up for it. The method, might I add, is quite clever. Besides that, I thought parts of “Death at the Bar” were enjoyable, though I guessed the murderer from the get-go. I also liked the method–and that brilliant clue of the onion!–in “Overture to Death,” though I guessed the killer easily enough in that one too. My only other recommendation would be “Death in a White Tie,” but for the characters and the clever plotting, not the mystery.
    Her worst book (that I’ve read) is her first, “A Man Lay Dead.” That one’s just atrocious–though the TV adaptation, starring Patrick Malahide, is pretty fun.
    I don’t know if that helps any.
    All the best!
    Karl Salzmann

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    • Her worst book (that I’ve read) is her first, “A Man Lay Dead.”

      I’m a bit of a Marsh fan, and over the decades have read perhaps as many as half of her novels, and I’d completely agree with your statement here. On the other hand, it is as you say Marsh’s first novel. Over the past few months I’ve read/reread Sayers’s first novel and Mitchell’s first novel, and they’re both pretty bloody awful too — in fact, of the three, I’d reckon the Marsh is the least bad (which is hardly high praise). The Mitchell, A Speedy Death, I’d say is one of the rankest mystery novels I’ve read.

      Just to put things into perspective, I should add that, with a few exceptions (notably Endless Night), I’ve not hugely enjoyed the score or so Christie novels that I’ve read. I used to read one every few months as filler; less so more recently.

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      • Looks like we’re almost antipodal on our views here – Endless Night is the one seriously disappointing Christie that I’ve read for the blog! Still, there’s something for everyone out there…

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    • Many thanks, Karl. I think you hit the nail on the head by praising a book for the characters not the mystery. Stella Duffy’s talk at the British Library the other day opened my eyes to that strength of Marsh’s and next time I try one – a New Zealand set one, I think, I’ll look out for that aspect. Thanks for the recommendations.

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