I’ve been meaning to give Ngaio Marsh ‘another try’ for ages as I keep being told that my rather negative impressions, formed many moons ago, should be re-assessed. So here goes, with this comparatively late entry in her series of Roderick Alleyn mysteries. This sees her on familiar ground in the theatrical world as he investigates the murder of celebrated stage actress Mary Bellamy, an at times charming woman with a truly vile temper. After a titanic tantrum on her 50th birthday, she is found dead after being sprayed with insecticide and everybody at the party is a suspect.
I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge.
“I find myself,” he observed “unable, any longer, to tolerate Mary Bellamy.”
As preparations for the big party (where of course the actual age is not to be mentioned) get under way, we are introduced to the dramatic personae: along with Mary we have Ninn, her old nanny and Floy, her dresser-cum-maid, who disagree about the star’s treatment of her ward Richard, the author of her recent stage hits who now wants to branch out on his own with a more serious play for a much younger actress that he is smitten with. Mary sees conspiracy and treachery everywhere even in the bland chiding of Charles, her devoted rich perfectionist of a husband or the decision by her dress designer Bertie Saracen to help her usual supporting player Pinky Cavendish get a lead role. And all the time we keep being reminded that Mary keeps a can of ‘Slaypest’ on her windowsill, so it comes as no surprise when she drops dead after apparently engulfing herself in the insecticide. Enter Inspector Fox and Superintendent Alleyn, who sort it all out in a matter of hours …
“People, even the larger-than-life-people of the theatre, tend at moments of tension to express themselves not in unexpected or memorable phrases but in clichés”
That very sensible man, the Puzzle Doctor, gave a very good account of this book at his blog, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, which chimes exactly with my own view and which, incidentally, tends to hold up Julian Symons general opinion about Marsh: that the scene setting is very well done with plenty of rich characterisation and strong dialogue, followed by a real plummet into dull plodding once the murder is committed and the investigation gets underway. So the first 100 pages of my edition (the sphere paperback at the top of this review) dealing with Mary and her coteries works extremely well along very traditional lines – but once she dies, 40% in to the 250-page book, interest for me tended to evaporate like the scent of her deadly perfume.
“As he opened the door into the hall the grandfather clock at the foot of the stairs was striking eleven. It provoked an involuntary ejaculation from the persons Alleyn had brought together round the table.”
Actually, I almost feel like cutting out the reference to ‘deadly perfume’ because technically it constitutes a massive spoiler in that it relates to something it takes Alleyn 100 more pages to realise. Trouble is, this is truly ridiculous as it is an incredibly obvious conclusion, one that even the cover of my edition goes out of its way to make clear. The murderer is not hard to spot either, though I kept hoping it might be someone from outside the main cast of characters to make it interesting. But no, this is rather a poorly plotted mystery I’m afraid, so I did get a bit distracted, noticing just how much the cast of characters seem to spend their time ‘ejaculating’ (which would have amused Gilbert Adair no end) – the word is used at least twenty times, so much so in fact that one might think that Marsh was having a bit of a laugh. And there is some sly humour here, like naming Mary’s formidable director ‘Timon Gantry’, a name clearly meant to recall the celebrated Tyrone Guthrie (see his Wikipedia page for more) along with predictably bitchy and campy comments from the very swish Bertie, who is introduced as follows early on:
Not very subtle but for the most part, to give Marsh her due, this book is urbane and amusing, and if not very sophisticated (and almost completely lacking in atmosphere), is none the less elegantly written in clean, clear and unfussy prose. One wishes that perhaps she had dispensed entirely with the mystery aspect to concentrate fully on the characters and situations. I remain, once again, a bit disappointed by my reading of Marsh. Better luck next time, perhaps …
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘murder method in the title’ category: