RogerBW's Blog

A Man Lay Dead, Ngaio Marsh 03 June 2016

1934 classic English detective fiction; first of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. At Sir Hubert Handesley's country house weekend, five guests play a game of "Murder". But when the lights come up…

Marsh is the only one of the "Queens of Crime" whose work I've not previously read (though my experience of Allingham is spotty). Inspector Alleyn here is something of an inconsistent cipher: sometimes he's a crude/clever Bright Young Thing, sometimes he's a bit of an aristocratic ass; sometimes he's a hard-liner for the police way of doing things, sometimes he's entirely unprofessional. One learns little about him other than that he has an upper-class background. His job, really, is to be the reader's tool in the story, pointing out what's important and giving a clear sign that at this point in the narrative you should have deduced who the murderer is.

Indeed, while the viewpoint wanders a little, it's mostly given to the fairly bland Nigel Bathgate, gossip columnist in an era when gossip columnists might still be invited to things, and when people could still say with a straight face:

"I suppose even the keenest journalist does not try to make copy out of his cousin's murder, especially when he happens to be his cousin's heir."

He becomes romantically involved (in ways that seemed to keep hinting at hidden oddness, but it was just my nasty suspicious mind) with a fellow guest who is also immediately released from suspicion, which leaves a fairly limited pool of suspects. Some attempt is made to blame it all on a Bolshevist secret society, but by the rules of the game this is obviously a red herring, even if it does lead to:

"One of their favourite practices was to gather together in one house, work themselves into a sort of disgusting frenzy and then lock themselves in and set fire to the building. Unfortunately they did not all do this, so the brotherhood survived…"

The crime itself doesn't entirely work, because it's never quite clear whether it's premeditated or spontaneous; some elements don't fit if it's one, some if it's the other, and the whole thing seems rather unlikely even by the standards of detective stories. Much of the book is spent pointing the finger at a much more plausible suspect, who by the structural conventions we know isn't going to be guilty. It's not as though detective fiction were a new thing (this came out in the same year as Sayers' The Nine Tailors), and this is clearly an apprentice piece.

"Your cousin's relationships with women were, shall we say, of a slightly ephemeral nature, my dear Nigel; but so are those of many bachelors of his age."

Nonetheless, it's enjoyable as a puzzle story, and I gather Alleyn in particular becomes rather more developed in later books. Followed by Enter a Murderer.

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