RogerBW's Blog

Spinsters in Jeopardy, Ngaio Marsh 09 June 2017

1954 classic English detective fiction; seventeenth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn is combining work for the Sûreté with a family holiday in the South of France, but sees a possible murder from the train, and then things get even more complicated. US vt The Bride of Death.

There's a great deal of coincidence here. The things Alleyn sees (three years before 4:50 from Paddington) are taking place in the very castle that's the target of his investigations; and an old lady on the train is taken ill with appendicitis, and there's no doctor in the village so she has to be taken to the castle where one of the guests can help her; and Troy has been receiving letters from a distant and apparently somewhat dotty relative in the town…

The whole thing rests on these coincidences, and the investigative plans are sloppy in the extreme. It's not surprising when the Alleyns' six-year-old son is kidnapped; on the other hand Marsh paints a very fine picture of his parents feeling frantic about it but still trying to behave sensibly. (And young Ricky is that rare thing, a child character I didn't detest.)

There's a drug- and sex-cult of the idle rich and those who don't know any better, coming over very much an expression of the author's terror at the beginnings of the post-war jet set (reefer madness!), but at least each of the members has a reason for being part of it; much as in Death by Ecstasy from twenty years earlier, these work as real people rather than just as extras.

Unfortunately they're not needed as real people, because there's very little in the way of mystery here. Dr Baradi is a horrible greasy foreigner who gives extravagant compliments to Alleyn's wife; clearly he's a Bad Man, as is the cult leader, and the only questions are which of them might have committed any particular bit of frightfulness, and what specifically they're up to just now. This is really more a thriller than a detective story, and it suffers as a result; it doesn't keep up the fast-paced action that a thriller needs.

It's still Marsh, and still well-written (not to mention a passing reference to "the days when there was steak in England"), but this is definitely not one of the better entries in the series. Followed by Scales of Justice.

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See also:
Death in Ecstasy, Ngaio Marsh

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