RogerBW's Blog

The Nursing Home Murder, Ngaio Marsh 30 August 2016

1935 classic English detective fiction; third of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. In a private hospital, the Home Secretary was operated on for appendicitis: shortly afterwards he was dead, poisoned with hyoscine (scopolamine). And all sorts of people seem to have had motives.

Which is where it feels artificial. Yes, all right, Marsh does go to some trouble to line things up, but when one of the three nurses just happens to be the young woman the victim has dumped after a fling, the surgeon is her prospective beau (and both of them have threatened to kill him in front of witnesses), and another nurse is a communist agitator (and he's bringing in a Bill which will make life much harder for anarchists and communists, who are obviously the same thing)… well, it all starts to feel a bit too much. Much as in Enter a Murderer everything is carefully set up so that there are multiple suspects, but while there everyone had at least been involved in the play and known the victim through the natural course of events, here it smells of forced coincidence and the lamp.

Making the victim the Home Secretary, while it does bring in the communist angle, also feels excessive: oh yes, Alleyn knows the Prime Minister. This angle does allow Nigel Bathgate, Alleyn's journalistic Watson, into the story, since there's a big communist meeting going on and it has to be infiltrated; but it feels as though Alleyn's humouring him, and this section could have been written from Alleyn's point of view just as the rest of the book is.

More seriously, this is the third of three books that has ended with Alleyn reconstructing the crime, thus causing the murderer to give him/herself away. That's getting rather samey.

All the characters are pretty thin, though the victim's daft sister and her social-climbing pharmacist friend show some slight promise. The actual motivation for the murder is a bit of a stretch. On the other hand there are good comic touches, and the narrative manages to maintain interest even in the middle section when things are plodding along through repeated procedural details of just who was unobserved at the crucial times.

An interesting historical note is that one of the characters espouses eugenics, and this is treated with somewhat mixed feelings by Alleyn. Most of the time I see such ideas in literature from the 1930s or earlier, they're mentioned in a way that's at least broadly approving.

The book would be better with more characterisation and development of motives, but it does still work on a technical level; Marsh isn't impressing me with her writing, but these are early works and I like to read series from the start.

Followed by Death in Ecstasy.

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