FALSE SCENT (1960) by Ngaio Marsh

Marsh_False-Scent_fontanaI’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”

Marsh_False-Scent_pbThat 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 Marsh_False-Scent_fontanaspot 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:

“His air was gay and insouciant. He, too, was a bachelor and most understandably so”

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:



***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, England, London, Ngaio Marsh, Roderick Alleyn. Bookmark the permalink.

62 Responses to FALSE SCENT (1960) by Ngaio Marsh

  1. Jacques Barzun liked this one, bit I thought it rather a routine book for her when I read in the 1990s: routine outre murder method if you will, routine murderer choice, routine young romance, routine setting and characters.

    I feel like those people recommending mysteries to Edmund Wilson on this one ( 😉 ), but some of my favorites by her, which I thought had enjoyable plots, are Artists in Crime, Death in a White Tie, Surfeit of Lampreys and Opening Night. The latter was once Symons specifically criticized for devolving into police investigation (Robert Barnard called them Marsh-y inquisitions), but I liked it.

    Colour Scheme, Off with His Head and Scales of Justice are some others you might try if you haven’t already. Or Hand in Glove, which comes right after False scent, I believe. In his contemporary review, Julian Symons wrote that Glove was Marsh’s best book in years.

    If you read some of those and they all bomb with you I think we can safely say you aren’t that into dear Dame Ngaio!

    In my own case, the first book I read by her was Surfeit of Lampreys, which I hated (when I reread it years later I quite liked it). Then I read A Man Lay Dead and was distinctly unimpressed (it was her first book). I must have liked the third one though, because I kept reading them!

    • Thanks for the great suggestions Curt – I cannot for the life of me imagine what Barzun would have seen in this one (not for the first time) and I think I quite liked Enter a Murderer but got a bit bored with some of the others I tried (White Tie seemed to go on forever I recall). I will try again as I think this is, Barzun not withstanding, a poor example.

      • Barzun and Taylor on False Scent in A Catalogue of Crime:

        A theatrical tale, but wholly unobjectionable. The fading first lady throws tantrums and exerts tyranny and gets done in by spraying herself with what she believes is scent. The family relationships are prime, as are scenes and eccentricities. Allen and Fox recessive but not dull.

        As I said I thought it was pretty meh. However, on Amazon it gets seven five-star ratings out of eleven, so not everyone agrees! Also averages a 3.8 on Goodreads. A lot of people just like her writing, but I thought she was coasting in this one (true of a lot of her postwar books).

        • Thanks very much for that Curt – my reaction, particularly to the ‘revelation’ of the murder method was one of shock, but only in the sense that it was literally completely obvious from the first page but it took 200 pages for Alleyn to get there and I genuinely thought it must be a double bluff of some kind – like the Puzzle Doctor said in his review too, I genuinely thought it was established from the beginning of the investigation and that I had somehow missed that bit.

          I will clearly focus on pre-war and Bev has just written a really positive review of WHITE TIE and as I have that on the shelf I will try again and see if it sings to me this time …

      • Bev Hankins says:

        Ah, Sergio. I feel rather bad that you don’t seem to care for White Tie…seeing as that’s the one I was going to recommend. I like it for Alleyn’s engagement in the hunt for the killer since Bunchy was such a great friend of his. And I have to say, the passing tramp is recommending Colour Scheme which probably the last one I’d recommend–so it’s definitely a matter of taste on her books.

  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    I read 2 or 3 Ngaio Marsh books but didn’t like any of them and then avoided them. She was no good in writing mystery novels.

    • Interesting Santosh – she has some many fans that I keep thinking I’m missing something – I think False Scent is a poor one in terms of plot though but will try at least one more time because the characterisation was pretty good.

  3. TracyK says:

    I am glad you liked this one, Sergio. I have liked a lot of Marsh’s books, but there have also been books that have been of lesser quality and not so entertaining. The last book I read was #16 (Night at the Vulcan) and this is #21, so in theory I will hit it sometime soonish.

    • I really didn’t like this one TracyK … but it’s clear she is a variable author – which would you recommend as your favourite for someone who needs convincing, like me?

      • TracyK says:

        I guess I saw the “urbane and amusing” comment but missed later in the same paragraph where you said you were disappointed. I read a lot of her books (the earlier ones) about 10 years ago and I did enjoy most of them or I would not have continued through them. When I read Night at the Vulcan (2012?), I was a bit disappointed, so perhaps my tastes have changed. In that one it was divided into setup in half the book, investigation in 2nd half, and I liked the first half (the characters especially) much more than the 2nd. But for a vintage mystery I thought it was fine. Nowhere near as good as any Christie I have read recently, but at least as good as many other vintage mysteries I have tried. So I am sure it is just a matter of taste. Honestly I have little memory individually of the ones I read in 2002-2003.

        • Thanks TracyK – well, I always try to be positive 🙂 I’m glad that the ‘game of two halves’ feeling is one that many of us seem to have shared – as you say, depends what you want from a GAD mystery. I’ll look at the ones from the 30s that I have already and see how they measure up. Thanks.

          • TracyK says:

            I still have about 10 of the last 16 of her books that I have not read. Only one of those is one that Curt recommends to try: Scales of Justice. So maybe I will skip ahead to that one if I visit Marsh again. Hand in Glove is also a later one but I don’t have that one. Seems like her earlier books may have been better (though still variable).

          • Thanks TracyK – I have a memory of that one, but I think it’s because it was adapted for the TV show!

  4. I read quite a few of hers years ago, and then eventually decided I just didn’t enjoy them that much – that central portion I think we can all identify, where there are endless interviews and everyone saying exactly where they were. She did have a gift for characters – I love the family in Surfeit of Lampreys – but that got submerged under the alibi stuff. I would read or re-read another if I got a really good recommendation, and usually I would love the theatrical setting, but you have successfully put me off. And that’s hilarious about the murder method, which perhaps you don’t even have to read the book to guess. Well, you and I must ‘beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ – if you get a killer reco and find a good one by her, tell me, and I’ll do the same for you.

  5. Colin says:

    I have this one lying around unread. I quite agree with what yourself and others say here regarding Marsh in general – good characterization, interesting and frequently well-realized settings, but plots that just don’t grip. Well, not enough anyway.
    I think the last of her books I read was Colour Scheme, some years ago now, which started off well and actually created a bit of atmosphere but just didn’t sustain it.

    • It does of course depend what you want from a golden age style mystery – here the plot is pretty woeful but I am enjoying getting some feedback on better plotted March entries as my memory is fairly scrappy (I think I read a few when the TV show was on and that was mostly it, so we’re talking 20 years ago – yikes!)

      • Colin says:

        I have a good number of her books here and there but haven’t touched them for ages. I can’t say I disliked those I read exactly – it’s more that they just didn’t seem to demand my attention. If that makes any sense…

        • I agree completely – I have had the same half dozen books of hers on the shelf for the last two decades, untouched – not unique this, I feel the same about Michael Innes, an author I know I really should like much more and yet Appleby, like Alleyn, just doesn’t interest me very much. Give me Campion, Merrivale, Queen, Poirot any day!

          • Colin says:

            Yes, the detective, maybe even as much as the puzzle itself, is crucial. When he’s a bit bland then it does become a little less enticing.

          • And also I suppose you have to have a special tolerance for aristocratic sleuths – I enjoy the Philo Vance books and I know most readers can;t stand him, so I can hardly judge …

          • Colin says:

            Vance is OK by me too – he’s a strong character, love him or hate him.

          • And in the best of the books (let’s say the first 7) he really does have some interesting things to say. I feel the same about the earlier Wimsey books too, which are of course just as divisive but much more liked.

          • richmcd says:

            I agree about Appleby, and it’s a shame. Innes is consistently my favourite author of detective stories, and even in the totally bonkers ones (Appleby on Ararat, The Daffodil Affair) he’s always at least trying something new, even if he doesn’t pull it off. His ability to imagine absurd and exaggerated motives for murder is seemingly limitless.

            But Appleby is a really bland detective. I can only assume it’s somehow deliberate, because Innes can create memorable characters in the space of a few words… Maybe he thought a detective shouldn’t overwhelm the stories they feature in? But I think he was definitely mistaken there.

            I still think Hamlet, Revenge! is the finest Golden Age mystery by a long shot, and Stop Press is a brilliant meditation on pranks and shaggy-dog stories. But Appleby is unfortunately at his most inscrutable and irritating in both of them.

            And not really related, but I’ll champion it any chance I get: The Last Tresillians is tragically overlooked (written under Innes’ real name of J.I.M. Stewart). Just a beautiful novel, and one that shows how mystery techniques are often much more effective away from corpses and puzzle plots.

          • Thanks for that Rich. I remember being rather bored by APPLEBY’S END which seemed rather turgid and so I don’t think I read much beyond that in the series (chronologically speaking) – and I have not read ‘The Last Tresillians’ but will certainly seek it out.

          • richmcd says:

            Yeah Appleby’s End wasn’t my favourite (although weirdly I was reading it on the monorail in Bangkok back in April and a guy asked me about it. He hadn’t heard of Innes, but he HAD heard of J.I.M. Stewart, and said he was just the strangest man. But before he could elaborate he had to get off. That seemed a really odd thing for a stranger in Thailand to know about, especially as he couldn’t have been much older than me.)

            Anyway I get the impression that by that period Innes was just writing them to amuse himself. They often feel like extraordinary first drafts. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he just sat down and bashed one out over the course of a week.

            Later it’s even worse, at it feels like he’s often just writing them to fulfil an obligation. There are still some gems, but it’s not normally an Appleby. The short stories are consistently amusing though.

            Have you read The New Sonia Wayward? I think you might like that one.

          • I have WAYWARD on the shelf, unread – right, I shall definitely plunge into that – time for me to reconsider some literary preconceptions! Cheers 🙂

          • PS Just how easy is it to get a copy of The Last Tresillians by the way? I have never actually seen a copy …

          • richmcd says:

            Hmm. I’m not sure. I don’t remember having any trouble. I assume I just looked on abebooks.

          • I may have misspelled the title actually – I’ll try again … 🙂

          • richmcd says:

            Hmm. I couldn’t find any copies when I just looked. Maybe it’s rare? But I’d be happy to send you my copy if you like. I’m leaving the UK in October and unfortunately my books can’t make the trip. It would be nice to find a home for some of them.

          • That’s mighty generous Rich – let me send a PM off-piste (sic) 🙂

  6. richmcd says:

    I think British/Kiwi reserve (transitively bestowed to others by the gentle style) and a reluctance to criticise what is essentially harmless means than Ngaio Marsh gets an incredibly easy ride. Her books just feel incredibly unambitious, like at best they’re going to be an inoffensive way to pass the time. But when that’s the best and she rarely (if ever) reaches it, it doesn’t seem worth persevering. There are a lot of consistently pleasant authors who also know how to plot a mystery without just hopping on the “interview all the characters one at a time” carousel. And do Alleyn/Fox actually have any personality traits?

    I’m interested in why people who dislike her keep giving her a chance. And that’s not casting aspersions. Despite what I just wrote, everyone else’s tepid opinions and the fact that I’ve read a dozen of her books and disliked all of them, I still find myself staring at Death and the Dancing Footman on my shelf, wondering if it will be any good.

    • You put that very well indeed Rich, and thanks very much for that. There was, so the argument goes, a naturalism she brought to her characterisation and settings in the 1930s that seemed to herald something new; and yet it’s clear that she remained a resolutely GAD figure, even in the 1980s. If, of course, you value character over plot, then I suppose she has a head start, but like Sayers, I do wonder if it’s that old gender divide argument? I will happily admit that I would be very disappointed in myself if I thought that just because I’m a man I can’t appreciate certain kinds of fiction and writing (and yes, the fact that I have been focussing so much more on women authors of late is not a coincidence) – to me that just doesn’t seem like a good enough reason. But then, what would you expect from an old Commie like your truly. When a lot of people you respect like something you don’t, I suppose you automatically want to see if you have missed something.

  7. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Thanks as ever for a candid and thoughtful review. I think you’ve put your finger on what makes her work enduringly popular: wit, dialogue and characters. I’m sorry to hear that you were less impressed with the plot and pace. There are definitely authors whose plotting I think is in general smoother and more compelling. Still, I have to say I like her characters…

    • Thanks Margot – I donlt think anybody rates this as being among her best, but I find myself more annoyed than anything that this may be an author I just don’t ‘get’ – makes me feel like I am losing out and also somehow lacking in myself. Hate it when that happens 🙂

  8. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    It’s a long time since I read Marsh (possibly 25 years?!) but i do remember her work being inconsistent – the settings often being more varied and interesting than the plot. It’s always disappointing when you can second-guess a classic mystery writer – I always want them to outsmart me!

  9. Yvette says:

    Bev, the ‘Bunchy’ murder always touched me, probably most of all the deaths in the Marsh books. I liked Bunchy so much and I felt for Alleyn having to deal with his death. I loved most of the theater mysteries too except for, maybe, ENTER A MURDERER which I never could get into and for whatever reason, I never liked the DANCING FOOTMEN one either.

    Well, Sergio, this wasn’t such a terrible review. It’s not as if you hated the book. Ha. Not every book a writer creates is perfection, that’s for sure. Marsh had a few clunkers. To tell the truth I don’t remember disliking this book though I note it’s not among my favorites. (Yeah, the perfume bottle.)I I think I like the early Marsh books best, I did love SPINSTERS IN JEOPARDY because of its very improbability and satirical humor, and I’m glad I had my binge. 🙂

    P.S. DEATH OF A PEER aka A SURFEIT OF LAMPREYS gets my vote for most grisly Marsh murder, next to DIED IN THE WOOL. Despite that (the ‘ick’ factor) both are top of the line entries far as I’m concerned.

  10. Yvette says:

    P.S. P.S. As for Alleyn being a bland inquisitor and lackluster person, I couldn’t disagree more. In fact he is one of my very favorite detectives, one of my favorite people in fiction. (Wrote about him as such a while back on the old blog.) I freely admit this may have more to do with my own femaleness and liking for certain types of men, than anything else. But we can’t get away from the fact that we bring what we are to our books.

    • Thanks Yvette (again, and as always) – seems to me that we can only read that way, it’s what the books bring out in us that we enjoy most, second to which of course is being able to express it to others so we can share it. I think … Anyway, I definitely see Death in a White Tie in my Future!

    • I think in Surfeit of Lampreys Marsh succeeded in putting together a fine English manners mystery. I even enjoyed the inquisitions segment, which benefits from emotional tension. I used to have the same feeling as some here describe–oh, her plots aren’t as good as Christie’s–but I got over that. Most people’s plots aren’t as good as Christie’s!

      Artists in Crime and is interesting in the art milieu and has a good plot, I think. Liked the deb society stuff in White Tie. Opening Night I liked a lot too because the theater milieu plot was so well-done and I thought the murder was interesting.

      Scales of Justice and Off with Her head I didn’t like as much on rereading, but both have the gentry/village settings people like and those are done well. Same with Overture to Death, though this is one Edmund Wilson hated (he also hated Sayers’ Nine Tailors)!

      Colour Scheme I thought was good on the local wartime NZ atmospehre and the lava pit murder was clever.

      • Thanks for that Curt, greatly appreciated – and I would be interested in reading the one set in New Zealand too. I remember watching, decades ago, the TV adaptation of DYED IN THE WOOL with George Baker (rather odd casting I thought) when it was shown on British TV but can’t remember much about it sadly.

        • That one’s a murder in retrospect type book, but it kind of bored me at the time! More psychological though, might be one to look at again. Final Curtain is a country house, Great Man of the Theater book. Lots of Troy in that one.

  11. Ela says:

    Nice review, and I agree with your assessment, though I like Marsh’s detective novels a lot: this one is rather weak, and the title gives away the solution. She’s great at characterisation and setting, and sometimes one feels that the actual detecting part was a bit of a chore. DIED IN THE WOOL is one of my favourites – I particularly like the New Zealand setting in wartime, and the limited cast of suspects actually works in its favour. Her later books are a bit meh, but try ARTISTS IN CRIME, which I think is my favourite, or DEATH AT THE BAR, which has a lovely bit of misdirection.

  12. Hi Sergio, I have heen in two minds about starting out on Marsh’s fiction and after reading your review, I’m still undecided, though I’ll read something eventually. This is not to say you have succeeded in dissuading me, rather I think I’ll wait a while before I do read her novels.

    • Well, fact is, I remain pretty undecided too – it looks like the 1930s books are probably much better, but it depends which one you try – I shall probably report more on this, later rather than sooner though 🙂

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  15. Colin says:

    Just finished off A Man Lay Dead so I thought I’d revisit this thread and leave a comment.
    Frankly, my opinion remains unchanged as I found the book (relatively short at 190 pages) a bit of a slog. Again, the characterization and setting aren’t bad, although arguably the most interesting character becomes the victim, which doesn’t help. There’s a sub-plot about Russian brotherhoods that’s just pure twaddle and leads absolutely nowhere.
    There’s a degree of misdirection regarding the identity of the murderer although that identity, given the motivations of the characters, isn’t much of a surprise. At the end of it all I was dumbstruck by the sheer chutzpah of the reveal of the murder method, but not in any good way. I’m still shaking my head that anyone could not only come up with such a method, but also think it was something that an intelligent character would consider and attempt.

    • Thanks for that Colin – Marsh is really, it seems, turning into amarmite sort of writer – you have to forgive a lot to enjoy her stufff it seems to me. Right, packinh her stuff off the TBR and into the loft!

      • Colin says:

        I can’t see myself returning to her for a good long time – it took me, a slow reader anyway of course, over two weeks to get through those 190 pages, and that’s not a good sign. Oh, I forgot – characters kept ejaculating continuously, which made me smile at least.
        Now I’m off to try some Hammett short fiction, which a wise man recently recommended.

  16. Pingback: A MAN LAY DEAD (1934) by Ngaio Marsh | Tipping My Fedora

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