RogerBW's Blog

Opening Night, Ngaio Marsh 18 May 2017

1961 classic English detective fiction; sixteenth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Towards the end of the opening night of a new play, one of the cast kills himself. Or does he? US vt Night at the Vulcan.

This is another of Marsh's theatrical mysteries, but it doesn't recall Vintage Murder as much as A Surfeit of Lampreys. It has a similar primary viewpoint character, a young woman recently travelled from New Zealand to London, who finds unexpected friendship there but is also thrown into an ongoing situation where she doesn't know whom to trust.

Here the young woman is Martyn Tarne, and she has some exprience as an actress, but for reasons delayed in their exposition she's without money and desperate for a job. She overhears the need for a new dresser for the leading lady at the Vulcan, and steps in; it's not the fantasy of the understudy who has to go on at the last moment, but it'll keep a roof over her head.

She comes into the final act of tensions that have been building for years, and for all Marsh's undoubted skill it does feel at times like an exercise in shaking up the pieces and seeing where they'll land. Yes, here's the leading lady having an affair with the leading man.

Usually this was a successful exercise. She had conducted her affairs of the heart, she knew, with grace and civility. She had almost always managed to keep them on a level of enchantment. She had simply allowed them to occur with the inconsequence and charm of self-sown larkspurs in an otherwise correctly ordered border.

Here's the overgrown juvenile.

"--and anyway," Parry was saying, "what chance has any of us as long as this fantastic set-up continues? In Poole-Hamilton pieces the second leads go automatically to the star's husband. I suppose Adam thinks it's the least he can do. Actually, I know I'm too young for the part but--"

"I wouldn't say you were," J.G. said, absently. Parry shot an indignant glance at him but he was pressing powder into the sides of his nose.

Here's the hopeless young actress.

"…from the beginning the part got her down. She's a natural ingenue and this thing's really 'character.'"

And her swain.

Was he the victim of that Indian Summer that can so unmercifully visit an ageing man?

And the author of the play is hanging around too and interfering, in spite of being told "back to your box, sir" by the manager.

There are repeated references to a previous murder case in the same theatre, which could be considered spoilers for the short story "I Can Find My Way Out".

But while the earlier theatrical mysteries started with extended initial interviews and then sent everyone home to brood, here Alleyn, in spite of arriving more than half-way through, has solved the whole thing and provoked a confession by the time the witnesses are released at the end of the night. This might be facile, but it seems more appropriate: the point of the thing is being in the theatre, and the case is started and solved there.

Some points of interest are that everyone's been in the Blitz, seen dead bodies, and done gas drills; and that the police not only observe but criticise the histrionics of that young actress:

"She's what one might call a composite picture, don't you think?"

"I do, indeed. And I fancy she's got her genres a bit confused."

"She tells me she's been playing in Private Lives, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray and Sleeping Partners in the provinces."

"That may account for it," said Alleyn.

There's a romance that didn't convince me, and some pointless obfuscating as well as the necessary obfuscation of clues; there's an incident which is talked around using the evasions of the day, which I found somewhat disconcerting; but the puzzle is an honest one and the people work well. There's not as much of Alleyn's wit as in some earlier books, and there's no Troy, but the book's only real flaw is that sometimes it comes off as a bit too polished.

Followed by Spinsters in Jeopardy.

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See also:
Surfeit of Lampreys, Ngaio Marsh

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