RogerBW's Blog

Death at the Bar, Ngaio Marsh 07 December 2016

1940 classic English detective fiction; ninth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. In an isolated village in Devon, a game of darts at the pub ends in death. Accidental? Surely not.

Where Overture to Death was happy to have comic rurals, this one is distinctly darker. Everyone here has something discreditable about them, from the barrister who's proud of getting his clients unreasonably lenient sentences to the locals who pick their candidates for murderer and stick with them whatever evidence may come along.

Three friends visit Otterbrook each year for a couple of weeks' holiday: Watchman the barrister, Parish the actor, and Cubitt the painter. They stay in the Plume of Feathers and drink there each evening with the locals; but when Watchman allows one of the locals to try to surround his hand with darts, his finger is nicked, and a few minutes later he's dead. And there's a trace of cyanide on the dart…

" 'Be shot if she haven't got some new-fangled notion about wedlock being no better than a name for savagery. Talks wild trash about freedom. To my way of thinking the silly maiden don't know what she says."

This is mostly a technical mystery: who could have put the cyanide on the dart, and when; where could they have got it from; and so on. (The landlord's rat-poison seems like the most likely bet; this is an era in which prussic acid could casually be purchased over the counter. But that bottle was locked away in a cupboard, and only his fingerprints are on the key.) On the character side, Watchman has various discreditable connections, both professional and personal, but the writing about them feels impatient, as if Marsh knows she has to have a romance but is trying to get it out of the way in order to return to the good stuff. On the other hand, Inspector Fox, who's often just appeared as a sounding-board for Alleyn, is clearly shown as being no mean detective in his own right, and gets some excellent character moments here.

"I'm not trying to protect Legge, but I've no particular wish to make him sound like a man of mystery. 'Who is Mr. X?' As far as we know, Mr. X is a rather dreary little Soviet-fan who combines philately with communism, and is pretty nippy with the darts."

Alleyn is off his home patch again, but this book manages to be just as claustrophobic and overheated as Death in a White Tie – though it was finished in May of 1939 and there's no mention of international tension at all, apart from a local Socialist Movement that appears mostly to be there for amusement. The vast majority of the action happens inside the pub, and even the blatant odious comic relief character comes under suspicion.

I found my attention being rather too heavy-handedly directed away from what seemed to me like an obvious possibility, and I was surprised that the murderer's cunning plot didn't develop an extra stage that would have made it significantly more effective (cbvagvat gur rivqrapr ng n fcrpvsvp bgure crefba nf n snyyonpx cyna bapr gur gurbel bs nppvqrag unq orra qvfpneqrq). Descriptions and reconstructions are often repetitive, and in some ways this feels like a prototypical police procedural more than a classic mystery.

Alleyn walked down an alley toward the jetty, and took cover in an angle of one of the ramshackle cottages that sprawl about the waterfront. This is the rough quarter of Ottercombe. Petronella Broome has a house of ill-repute, four rooms, on the south waterfront; and William Glass's tavern was next door until Superintendent Harper made a fuss and had the license cancelled. This stretch of less than two hundred yards is called the South Front. At night it takes on a sort of glamour. Its lamps are reflected redly in the water. Petronella's gramophone advertises her hospitality, bursts of laughter echo over the harbour, and figures move dimly to and fro across the lights. But at ten to six in the morning it smells of fish and squalor.

(Oh, and Alleyn and Troy have been married off-stage since the last book. Troy doesn't appear here.)

Followed by Surfeit of Lampreys.

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