A MAN LAY DEAD (1934) by Ngaio Marsh


Having rather hated one of the later cases featuring Roderick Alleyn, the upper-class cop invented by Ngaio Marsh (click here for my splenetic review of False Scent), I thought I would dial back the clock and see how he fared in his first investigation. It was later adapted by the BBC for radio and TV too, which suggests it has a lot of appeal, right? Well … here’s the premise: at a weekend gathering at Frantock, an English country house, a game of ‘Murder’ goes wrong and Alleyn is called in …

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Tuesday’s Overlooked Film / TV meme hosted by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom blog.

He had heard much of Sir Hubert Handesley’s ‘unique and delightfully original house parties’ …

As seems so often the case with Marsh, the characters are quite good fun but once the investigation into the stabbing of writer and ladies’ man Charles Rankin begins, it all starts to get very dull and mechanical indeed. Throw in an exotic dagger, plenty of suspects, a completely implausible alibi and an absurd murder method (involving sliding down the bannister of the country house in pitch darkness) and what you have is a fairly typical product of its day (as is the xenophobic Commie bashing, though that has hardly abated of late). In and of itself this can be fun, if you are not in too exacting a frame of mind. On the other hand, it can all be a bit tiresome if, like me, you have read perhaps too many such examples of the genre and get frustrated by the feeling that the author just isn’t trying very hard to vary an already very well-established formula. And the conclusion in particular is rather weak as Alleyn manages to explain how the crime might have been committed but in fact can’t actually prove it – but despite this, he gets an unlikely confession just the same. So really not much cop then – much better instead to concentrate on the adaptations of the book, which made lots of interesting changes!


A Man Lay Dead – BBC Radio Four (broadcast: 6 January 2001) – 60 minutes
Dramatised by Michael Bakewell; Directed by Enyd William
Cast: Jeremy Clyde (Alleyn), Donald Sinden (Sir Hubert), Derek Waring (Charles), John Moffatt (Arthur), Dorothy Tutin (Marjorie), Nick Waring (Nigel), Stephen Thorne (Sergeant Bunce), Molly Gaisford (Angela), Susannah Corbett (Rosamund), John Hartley (Dr Tokareff)

In reducing the novel to an hour-long drama, this production does a nice job of speeding things up by starting with the discovery of the body next to the dinner gong during the ‘murder’ game and then flashes back to fill in the blanks. Jeremy Clyde as usual is well cast as an aristocrat (he played Alleyn again in a radio production of A Surfeit of Lampreys for the same production team), while the late Donald Sinden is unmistakable as blustery Sir Hubert, the host of the party and art collector who covets the dagger used as the murder weapon. Dorothy Tutin really stands out though as Marjorie, the tragic middle-aged woman who couldn’t stop herself from being in love with a serial womaniser, and becomes an unlikely suspect in his death. The Bolshevik subplot is retained but streamlined considerably.

The Alleyn Mysteries / A Man Lay Dead (BBC One, 18 April 1993)
Screenplay: Barbara Machin
Producer: George Gallaccio
Director: Sarah Pia Anderson
Music: Ray Russell (end titles theme: Anne Dudley)
Cinematography: John Walker
Production Design: Paul Haines, Laurence Williams
Cast: Patrick Malahide (Alleyn), Belinda Lang (Agatha Troy), William Simons (Inspector Fox), Julian Glover (Sir Hubert), David Haig (Arthur), Clare Higgins (Marjorie), Susan Wooldridge (Rosamund), Nickolas Grace (Dr Hans Hoffner), Robert Reynolds (Charles), Matthew Lloyd Davies (Nigel)


This adaptation kicked off the short-lived Inspector Alleyn TV series (1993-94) starring Patrick Malahide, who took over the role from Simon Williams, who had starred in the original pilot film Artists in Crime (1990). From that initial entry, the series did however retain Belinda Lang as Agatha Troy and William Simons as Inspector Fox. They were added as characters to the adaptation of the book, in which they did not originally appear, (Troy takes over from the Angela North character as Sir Hubert’s niece) to keep the series consistent. Relocating the action to 1948, the Bolshevik subplot is replaced with one relating to the smuggling of art objects stolen during the war, with Alleyn discovering that Sir Hubert is involved in this, putting a strain on his budding romance with Troy. Otherwise, the main characters and plot are fairly faithfully followed (though predictably Nigel’s role from the novel is reduced to make Alleyn and Troy more central, which is fair enough). To be honest I enjoyed this much more than the original novel thanks to its strong cast and lovely locations (a big section of the story now takes place in a church), though it’s a shame composer Ray Russell decided to include several unsubtle homages to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho (presumably for no better reason other than the fact that the first murder, in a change from the novel, is committed by a man in drag). The series is easy to find on DVD (and yes, is plastered all over the internet illegally, too).

The book has been reviewed by many people far more sensible than I and you should seek them out – these include Moira at Clothes in Books; Karyn Reeves at A Penguin a Week; Aarti’s Book Lust; and Natalie Luhrs at Pretty Terrible.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘professional detective’ category:


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

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, England, Ngaio Marsh, Roderick Alleyn, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to A MAN LAY DEAD (1934) by Ngaio Marsh

  1. realthog says:

    I read this a few weeks ago and put my notes on GoodReads. I liked it really quite a lot better than you did, feeling that Marsh’s brio on the whole outweighed such factors as the very farfetched murder method. I also think you’re being unduly harsh on Marsh for not breaking out of the mold in her very first detective novel; as I’m sure you know, in her essay on the creation of Roderick Alleyn she states upfront that her aim was, having seen how well other mystery novels were selling, to imitate them in hopes of matching their success. That may not seem like a piece of high idealism to writers who aren’t wondering where the next can of baked beans is coming from, but it seems more than understandable to me.

    • Thanks for that John (I’m not registered on Gpood Reads there so can’t comment directly, apologies). Glad you thought her style made up for all the obvious shortcomings but it wasn;t enough for me. Marsh and I seem to be out of sync, shall we say? What can I tell you, I love Golden Age detective fiction but when I compare this with the debut novels of say Carr, Queen, Blake, Van Dine, Crispin, Allingham, Sayers, et al, she seems lacking, and I think that is a fair comparison, no? I will have a crack at Death in a White Tie as that seems to be a really popular favourite, but if that doesn’t do it for me, then I’m afariad that I’ll just have to leave her work to others to enjoy.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    It is interesting, isn’t it, Sergio, how sometimes adaptations can streamline and focus things, so that the story moves along at a faster pace than the book’s pace. Sometimes that leaves out some richness and character study. I always think that’s a shame. But sometimes, when a book drags a bit, a film adaptation highlights its best points. I suspect that happened here?

  3. Colin says:

    I read this earlier in the year and felt every bit as underwhelmed as you clearly were. The murder method is something else, isn’t it? You have to admire Marsh’s chutzpah at least. But God, the whole thing was dreary as far as I was concerned and I honestly couldn’t wait to finish it. The adaptations do sound like a distinct improvement though.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I attempted some Ngaio Marsh but found it so awful that I gave up. Not for me.

  5. As I’ve said a few times in my blog, the love for Marsh out there baffles me. She often starts well but just doesn’t seem capable of plotting a murder mystery effectively. I might take a look at the TV version though – I do like Malahide. And the audio version has Omega in it (Doctor Who nerd alert!)

    • Thanks for that chum – so glad it’s not just me! Both the audio and the TV version are very easy to get (on iTunes and, inevitably, YouTube) – and yes indeed, the mighty Stephen Thorne!

  6. This book put me off Marsh for a couple of years a quarter century ago or something like. Read Artists in Crime!

  7. Patti Abbott says:

    I loved this series as a twenty-year- old but fear I might share your issues with it. So I don’t go back to it.

    • Shame when that happens, in a way, but one has to look at it as a possible benefit (as long as one doesn’t get overly critical about everythign, which I do worry about as I can sense that coming slowl but surely …)

  8. The first Marsh I read was GRAVE MISTAKE, and I thought it was a bit ‘meh’, after reading Christie growing up. Though I was older then and might have thought the same of Christie if I’d read her for the first time in my 20s, post Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke etc.

    Years later I read Marsh’s DIED IN THE WOOL, and actually really enjoyed that. She does have a slow pace plotwise, but her characterisation, prose, and evocation of some settings is often better than Christie and the other Queens of Crime, and she does try several new things (though they may not seem new to us nowadays) – in Died in the Wool it’s all witness statements a year after the fact, quite a unique body find, and lots of war-time politics that Marsh actually wrote during the war (before anyone had any idea how it would turn out). Might seem old-fashioned to us now, of course. I also enjoyed some of her others. Really liked the Malahide series, though I haven’t read all the books those TV episodes were based upon.

    It’s interesting though – the likes of PD James, who knew a thing or two about crime writing, thought that Marsh was the best writer (not best storyteller), of the Queens of Crime, and loved her settings/characters, whereas other crime gurus like Mike Ripley just don’t like her, and think Allingham etc were far superior. Definitely marmite, but either way, perhaps underappreciated.

    • Thanks very much Craig. I remember seeing a TV version of Wool decades ago, starring George Baker (pre Wexford) but remember little. Thanks for pointing that one out, I’ll see if I can get my hands on a copy (in the new year though). The Malahide series is fun but does, as far as I can tell, play fast and loose with the books.

  9. Noah Stewart says:

    I have also had problems with Marsh’s work in the past, greatly to the dismay of her many fans. Last Ditch is on my “Die before you Read” list. But there is one novel upon which I always think back with pleasure, and continue to recommend: Overture to Death. Perhaps it’s that she restricts herself to a slightly smaller canvas or tries harder to create realistic characters, or perhaps I just like the peculiar murder method.
    There are four NZTV productions with George Baker and they’re tough to find, I think; to my recollection they focused on the NZ-based novels. Rather fun to see them actually shot in real NZ locations and using actual Maori actors where appropriate, but George Baker is just too stolid to be Alleyn for me.

    • Thanks for that Noah – and yes, I agree about Baker being a far from perfect fit (unlike his Wexford). OK, so on my maybe Marsh list I now have: Overture to Death, Died in the Wool, Death in a White Tie and Artists in Crime

  10. Bev Hankins says:

    I read most of Marsh when I was a young mystery fan which–which may explain my fondness for her. She is quite good with characters, however, though her plotting may leave a bit to be desired. You most definitely need to read Death in a White Tie. Reading it again fairly recently, I can say that it remains a favorite.

  11. Yvette says:

    Unlike you, dear Sergio, I liked the book better than I did the adaptation in which everyone except Alleyn and his lady love seemed to be preposterously over-acting. And I hated the casting – except for Patrick Malahide and Belinda Lang. But mostly I hated that everyone else just seemed so damned unpleasant – to the point that I didn’t care who got killed or why.

    Ngaio Marsh is a writer I like very much. I did one of my famous binge readings of her Alleyn books a couple of years ago and I’m glad I did. Discovered a whole bunch of books I’d somehow missed over the years. I like her work way more than you do, Sergio. But we can still be friends. 🙂

    • There’s no getting away from it, Marsh seems to polarise readers. I agree that the characters are less nice in the TV version (the radio adaptation is more faithful in that regard), but the plotting was so weak and unlikely that I didn;t mind it being a bit more dramatic. It is becoming clear to me though that I am getting less and less appreciative of the ‘cozy’ school – I used to be a bugger fan, but things change. SHall remain ever you pal Yvette, Dame Ngaio shall not get in our way 😉

  12. Ela says:

    I think Marsh didn’t hit her stride first go, since I think her early books are very generic, and I’m glad she phased out Nigel’s appearances as a major character. I think ‘Artists in Crime’ is where her plotting got as good as her characterisation. However, the later books also tailed off in quality, though there’s a lot to like in most of them (like ‘False Scent’, which I’m amazed her editor didn’t make her re-do) – she was heavily involved in the theatre and maybe by then it was more important to her than making money from detective novels.

    My favourites are ‘Artists in Crime’, ‘Death in a White Tie’, ‘Death at the Bar’, ‘Died in the Wool’ and ‘Surfeit of Lampreys’ (though the latter may be because I find the Lampreys really interesting and Roberta delightful).

    Mind you, I liked that you called your review of ‘False Scent’ “splenetic” – I thought it was pretty even-handed, actually!

  13. TomCat says:

    Sorry for the late response, Sergio, but what an interesting review, but you couldn’t have picked a worse Ngaio Marsh novel, because even Marsh herself ended up hating it – which is why I haven’t even touched it.

    I sort of drifted away from Marsh after reading the abysmal Death and the Dancing Footman (an impossible crime-ish sort of novel, but awful all around), but she wrote a couple of good ones: Death in a White Tie, Overture to Death, Death at the Bar and Surfeit of Lampreys among them. I should return to her one of these days.

    Speaking of adaptations that streamline and even improve on the book’s pace: have you ever seen the superb A&E adaptation of Rex Stout’s The Doorbell Rang? The best example of the adaptation improving on the original that I can think of and it’s a detective story to boot!

    • Good to hear from you TC – it does sound to me that Marsh’s list of really solid titles is rather small one running from the late 30s to the late 40s? I shall investigate, thanks. And yes, I agree with you 100%, the adaptation of The Doorbell Rang was absolutely superb (and in fact probably the highlyigh ot the sadly short-lived Nero Wolf Mystery series).

      • TomCat says:

        The problem with Marsh is that her output is very uneven, quality-wise, ranging from poor to good, with an occasional truly excellent novel thrown in, but they aren’t confined to one specific period in her career. Those I mentioned previously was from a period when she was on a roll.

        Other Marsh’s I liked from different periods are the early Enter a Murderer (not difficult, but not bad either and her first theatrical mystery), Off with His Head (another theatrical, semi-impossible murder from the 50s involving a decapitation on stage) and Tied Up in Tinsel, which is her Christmas mystery novel.

        Some would probably also Final Curtain and Singing in the Shrouds, but I barely remember those stories and there many more that I have yet to read. Scales of Justice and Dead Water always sounded promising to me.

        • Thanks very much for that TC – I may, I think, also have Enter a Murderer in the attic. I will definitely give her another go, but there are so many great Golden Age books I need to sample first!

  14. I read a ton of Marsh when I was young, then completely abandoned her for many years, and am now cautiously doing some re-reading: you and I are hitting parallel paths here occasionally – thanks for the shoutout…

    I think I find her more variable than most other writers, without being pinned to time – most people you think ‘oh went through a bad patch then’ or ‘the early/late stuff was much better/worse’, but she seemed capable of writing good books and terrible books alternately. I did not think this was one of the good ones, but I can forgive her because it was her first, and she was obviously writing what she thought a murder story should be. She did get better. I’m doing White Tie on the blog today, and it’s (a lot) better than this one, but I don’t love it. I’ll be interested to see what you think if you do get it down from the loft!

  15. Sergio, I haven’t actually read Marsh though I have read reviews of her books on Yvette’s and Moira’s blogs in the past. Quite frankly, I don’t know whether to read her work or not. I have mixed feelings about it. Every author, especially one who fits into your genre, should be read at least once and I’ll probably do that some point of time.

  16. Pingback: A Man Lay Dead (book #178, Marsh re-read #1) | Books and Pictures

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