RogerBW's Blog

Death on the Air and Other Stories, Ngaio Marsh 03 June 2017

1989 collection of short mystery stories, some featuring Roderick Alleyn.

Last year I read Allingham's Mr Campion and Others, and found it something of a failure, with stories that became repetitious and failed to develop enough character to be really interesting. This volume is a rather more effective approach to the anthology of short mystery stories, with more varied plots; while there still isn't really room to develop characters in detail, they feel as though given space they might do more than their stock roles indicate.

Roderick Alleyn and Portrait of Troy are Marsh's descriptions of the geneses of these characters; I've found them attached to other novels in the series. (Marsh claims that Sayers fell in love with Wimsey, and that she didn't with Alleyn; I don't find either part of this entirely convincing.)

Death on the Air (1936) has a domestic tyrant killed by an ingenious and perhaps over-complex scheme; there's an obvious false lead, and things are wrapped up neatly as (characteristically of early Alleyn) the murderer is provoked into a confession.

Dr Meadows looked at the Inspector. You agree with me, it seems. Do you suspect—?"

"Suspect? I'm the least suspicious man alive. I'm merely being tidy."

I Can Find My Way Out (1946) should be read between Surfeit of Lampreys (which introduces a significant character) and Opening Night (which gives away how this one was done); it's a murder at a theatre which uses many of the same stock roles as Opening Night would expand on, and since I happened to read Opening Night before this it seemed rather flat.

The stage manager returned to the set where he encountered his assistant. "What's biting him?" asked the assistant.

"He wanted a dressing room with a fire."

"Only natural,' said the ASM nastily. ‘He started life reading gas meters."

Chapter And Verse: the Little Copplestone Mystery (1973) has mysterious notations in a family bible leading to Alleyn's uncovering of a serial killer. And that's it for Alleyn in this book.

The Hand in the Sand (1953) is an account of real life, with possible insurance fraud; Marsh explains how she'd have liked to use it in a novel, but part of its charm is the mystery and incompleteness of the story.

The Cupid Mirror (1972) is a short anecdote of praiseworthy murder in plain sight, in the context of an excellent dinner.

A Fool About Money (1973) is a non-mystery anecdote, a trivial event which might be drawn from the life.

Morepork (1979) has a variety of unsympathetic people on a camping trip deep in the wilds of New Zealand, and a method of catching the killer that might have been more remarkable in earlier decades.

Moonshine (pre-1936) is a very early piece concerning a child and Father Christmas.

Evil Liver (1975) is a script for Crown Court concerning a lethal falling-out between neighbours. Because of the programme's format (the jury of non-actors would be expected to make their own decision during recording), there are two abbreviated endings, but it's pretty clear well before that point what has been happening.

My Poor Boy (1959) is an explanation of the life of an author, written in the form of a response to a hopeful novelist: in short, it's hard work.

This is a very mixed bag, and the mysteries are better than the non-mysteries, but everything here works, and it never quite becomes formulaic (though a clue to one story is given by the resolution of an earlier one). Recommended.

See also:
Mr Campion and Others, Margery Allingham

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