RogerBW's Blog

Enter a Murderer, Ngaio Marsh 18 August 2016

1935 classic English detective fiction; second of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. When Arthur Surbonadier is fatally shot on stage during the last act of The Rat and the Beaver, there's no question about who pulled the trigger: the shooting was part of the play. But there wasn't supposed to be live ammunition in the gun.

Marsh had an extensive theatrical background, so it's a little disconcerting to find that her fictional theatre is filled with horrible people, most of whom had motives.

Surbonadier had tried to push Felix Gardener out of the lead role and claim it for himself; and they've both been keeping company with the leading lady, Stephanie Vaughan. And he's been trifling with one of the dressers. And he's been blackmailing his uncle, the manager…

Alleyn happens to be present in the audience, and immediately starts his investigation. We still don't learn much about him as a person, though; he wavers between serious and facetious, and veers remarkably close to a dalliance with one of the suspects. He clearly sees his job in part as to make himself unpleasant.

"Ow yow – yow – yow," Saint echoed the inspector's pleasant voice with the exasperated facetiousness of a street urchin. "All Oxford and Cambridge and hot air," he added savagely.

"Only Oxford, and that's nothing nowadays," said Alleyn apologetically.

As in A Man Lay Dead, the principal (but not exclusive) viewpoint is of Alleyn's friend the journalist Nigel Bathgate – who can't resist the urge to get involved, and does indeed contribute some valuable clues, but whose main role as the Watson is to reason incorrectly. In this case he's also a friend of one of the suspects, and at one point threatens to walk out entirely, though of course he comes back before the end.

"All amateurs are tiresome. You want to be in on this, but you shy off anything that is at all unpleasant. We had this out before in the Wilde case. You'd much better keep out of it, Bathgate. I should have said so at the beginning."

But where Alleyn is enigma, Bathgate is caricature; there's very little to him, he's entirely predictable, and indeed rather dull. I'd rather have spent more time with Alleyn's assistants, Fox the plain-clothes man and Bailey the fingerprint expert.

Most of the other characters are simply unpleasant, several of them are hiding secrets, and they tend to go on at great length about how they are genuine while everyone else theatrical is a fraud. The mystery is a decently challenging one; the culprit was still on my list at the point of revelation, but so were several other people. There is an unfortunate forcing of the point, as the murderer is trapped into an admission rather than proven guilty, but as Alleyn says, "We haven't been very clever. I'm handing no bouquets to myself over this case."

This isn't a great book in any respect, and Marsh seems very much the weak sister in a year that also gave us Three Act Tragedy and Death in the Clouds from Christie and Gaudy Night from Sayers. It is still enjoyable, though, just not on a par with the top flight of mysteries at this point.

Followed by The Nursing Home Murder.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:42pm on 18 August 2016

    Theatrical guns are supposed to be modified to be only capable of firing blanks. Mistakes of this kind are frankly predictable, and actors don't like being shot. So either they were being stupid in the first place using a gun capable of firing real ammo, or someone tinkered with the gun as well.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 03:49pm on 18 August 2016

    Yes, but remember the date - this is an era when everyone and his dog (at least in this level of society) has an old gun from the War in a desk drawer somewhere. That the props manager is making the blanks himself is actually something of a point in the plot.

  3. Posted by Chris at 05:43pm on 18 August 2016

    As Hartley remarked, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

    As recently as 1964 I encountered a gun left over from one of my senior relations' conscript wartime days in the forces, and ammunition to fit it too. It was quite fun until my mother heard us and took it away.

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