RogerBW's Blog

Final Curtain, Ngaio Marsh 31 March 2017

1947 classic English detective fiction; fourteenth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Agatha Troy is commissioned to paint a portrait of Sir Henry Ancred, famed Shakespearian actor; the house is full of his variously ghastly family, including the chorus-girl he's taken up with.

This is a book of two halves; Troy is in the house for the week leading up to the death, as we get to know the various future suspects, and her husband Alleyn is on his way home after three years' absence and will soon take on the case.

In the meantime here was an old acquaintance of Alleyn's, one Squinty Donovan, who, having survived two courts-martial, six months' confinement in Broadmoor, and a near-miss from a flying bomb, had left unmistakable signs of his ingenuity upon a lock-up antique shop in Beachamp Place, Chelsea. Alleyn set in motion the elaborate police machinery by which Squinty might be hunted home to a receiver.

Both of them have to get to know each other again – and deal with the tacit assumptions they've been making about each other. Troy comes out rather well here, making it clear that in spite of her distaste for the business of catching and hanging murderers she'd rather Alleyn could talk to her about it instead of "protecting" her and leaving her to speculate.

So Alleyn goes down to the ghastly faux-castle to meet the ghastly survivors, all of whom act thoroughly theatrical though most of them don't get paid for it. Much as in Surfeit of Lampreys everyone is always putting on a show, they're all fairly horrible people, and working out who might be telling the truth becomes a severe challenge. There's the slightly sensible one, the grasping one, the ambiguously gay one (not as terrible as some of Marsh's gay characters but still not great)…

Oh, and just to confuse matters there's also a school for Difficult Children that was evacuated there. Indeed, this is one of the very few books from this sort of period that I've met in which "modern" methods of child-rearing are not mentioned merely as a target for ridicule (contrast Lewis in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader from 1953); they are certainly presented as odd, but also as having some actual virtue to them rather than just being obviously wrong and stupid.

Miss Able was pretty. She had a clear skin, large eyes and good teeth. She also had an intimidating air of utter sanity.

There are questions of poison (and some clues that I picked up on rather faster than I fancy I was supposed to, but then I read a certain other mystery novel at an impressionable age); even with that advantage, though, I didn't spot the murderer.

She had the fortunate knack, Troy noticed, of looking charming when she cried. She now tossed her head, bit her lips, and gained mastery of herself. "She'll make a good actress," Troy thought, and instantly checked herself. "Because," she thought, "the child manages to be so prettily distressed, why should I jump to the conclusion that she's not as distressed as she seems? I'm not sympathetic enough."

This is Marsh on form, with her double acts (Alleyn and Fox, now joined by Alleyn and Troy) working effectively, and all the faded gothic trappings that let a country-house murder story continue to work in the post-war world. Followed by Swing Brother Swing.

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