Vintage Murder by Ngaio Marsh

An English theatre company are touring New Zealand, and the manager of the company, who just happens to be married to the leading lady, wants to put on a surprise for her birthday. With the use of a few ropes and pulleys, the celebrations will climax with a jereboam of champagne floating gently down from the rafters into the party on the stage. Only due to someone fiddling with the counterweight, it falls rather more rapidly and smashes his head in…

Luckily the touring company has acquired a friend while on tour, namely Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, visiting New Zealand while on holiday. All he wanted was a bit of peace and quiet but he finds himself investigating “a squalid and tedious crime” – his words, not mine!

Another #1937book Crimes Of The Century book for me and I thought it was time to return to Dame Ngaio. Let’s face it, my previous outings with the so-called Queen of Crime haven’t gone well. Generally speaking, the set-ups have been strong, but interest dies away rapidly once the murder takes place and I’ve spotted the killer every time. But Stella Duffy waxed lyrically about this New Zealand-set one at the Bodies In The Library last year, so I thought, why not? This is the ideal book to jumpstart my Marsh appreciation.

Duffy’s main point of interest in the talk was in Marsh’s imagery and there are some lovely descriptive sections when Alleyn is all-too-briefly out of the theatre, talking about the New Zealand countryside, the Maori culture… it’s enough to make you want to go and visit.

You know what’s coming, though, don’t you?

The mystery is distinctly lacking in appeal. The investigation is basically one long series of interviews based on who has or hasn’t an alibi for various aspects of the crime, and the characters being interviewed aren’t desperately interesting – and neither are the interviewers, come to that. Anyone who’s read a few mysteries will spot something crucial about the crime, but it would take an aficionado with a notebook and a map of the theatre to work out the exact “how” of the crime. But I’d be impressed with anyone who really cared by that point… It reminded me of the so-called railway timetable mysteries, working out who could be where and at what time. Proceed With Caution was somewhat similar, but that had me gripped. Something about Marsh’s writing just doesn’t work for me.

It feels… artificial. The times that we are privy to someone’s – usually Alleyn’s – thoughts are quite jarring and people don’t seem to talk like human beings. There’s a line that tries to justify this by referring to the fact that that’s how theatre types speak, but it doesn’t convince.

Oh, and Marsh spoils the murderer (several times) of Enter A Murderer. Apparently that case was so famous that everyone (and I mean everyone) has heard of Alleyn, even to the extent of knowing him as “The Handsome Inspector” – a description that occurs a few times.

Anyway, Alleyn summed it up nicely. It made not be “squalid” but this book is certainly “a tedious crime”. Apologies to the Marshmen and Marshwomen out there – and I’d actively encourage you to defend this book to me – but this might be the last try for Marsh for me. Recommended as a cure for insomnia only…

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17 comments

  1. Oh dear, oh dear! I do remember reading a few Ngaio Marshes quite a while ago (perhaps in my late teens, early 20s) and enjoying them reasonably well. But maybe I was so starved of English language materials at the time, that I was prepared to enjoy any old thing.

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  2. Like MarinaSofia, I enjoyed much Marsh back in the day. However, I revisit her every now and then and, by and large, still enjoy her novels. I know that some take great pleasure in reviling her work, but I decline to let them ruin it for me.

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    • Rest assured, I don’t take pleasure from reviling her work. The reason I return every now and again is to try and understand her apparent charm. But apart from the initial pre-murder settings and innovative murder methods, it still eludes me. What irks me most is that there are so many lost authors who are at least on a par with her who seem to be constantly overlooked and remain unrepublished.

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  3. I’ve read a few of his novels (i have all of them in epub) and I’m not a fan BUT the last one I’ve read, Dead and the dancing footman, was very good, an enjoyable locked room murder so I will read a few others anyway.

    Off with his head has a good reputation (another lockec room mystery) but unfortunately it was not translated into french…

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  4. It worked for me last year (I’m doing a comprehensive chronological read-through of Marsh and Allingham), though I found it rather more conventional than many of Marsh’s earlier stories. I agree that it can be a slog at times.

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    • Fair enough. I think what doesn’t help is two things. First, the murder occurs earlier than usual so the usually interesting set up is truncated. Second, once you discover that the alibis are useless, I found the murderer pretty inevitable regardless of the timetable-esque method. I think I preferred Overture To Death to this one.

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  5. Overture to Death is one of the good ones. I have to say that I tore through Marsh in my 20’s, but then I had pretty much exhausted Christie by that point and was desperate for a new “Crime Queen.” Yes, Marsh’s prose gets too clever by half, and every book bogs down in the middle, but I liked them when I read them. I don’t really have the time to revisit her because there are so many “new” old authors getting re-discovered, and I would rather revisit Patrick Quentin or Christianna Brand than poor Ngaio!

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  6. I don’t think it’s one of her best. Don’t care for the (very mild) thing between Alleyn and the leading lady – does he always have to be so irresistible and so susceptible? There are things I like about it though – the scene on the train at midnight is good, and I like Susan Max (not enough older women who are sympathetically presented in Golden Age fiction [and it’s not always one of Marsh’s strengths]). Quite like the police officer who gets stuck, too, though it’s very broad slapstick.

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    • Re the train section, I completely agree. Marsh’s strength for me is always in the pre-crime section. Makes you wonder why she wrote mysteries as the plotting of those seems to be a weak spot…

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