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Vintage Murder, Ngaio Marsh 19 October 2016

1937 classic English detective fiction; fifth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. This time he's on holiday in New Zealand, sharing an overnight train with a touring theatrical troupe also from England, when the manager says that someone's tried to murder him. The next day, someone will succeed.

The shadows are starting to lengthen as I advance through the years in this comprehensive reading of Marsh and Allingham; while previous books have blithely assumed that anarchists and Bolshevists are the cause of all the world's troubles, here someone speculates about what will happen "if there's another war" (and there's a mention of "the first world war" by that name).

But it's only a mention, and this is in most respects a conventional mystery, with seventeen suspects (some of them not taken terribly seriously) and a baroque means of murder. In fact, with that huge cast, there's less time for characterisation than has been usual for Marsh, and instead there's a great deal of juggling of who could have been where at what point and who can vouch for them. (And most of them get comprehensive alibis as we enter the final stretch, from someone who's simply been forgotten in the earlier interviewing – very sloppy police work.)

[Alleyn] was reminded most vividly of his only other experience behind the scenes. "Is my mere presence in the stalls," he thought crossly, "a cue for homicide? May I not visit the antipodes without [murder]? And the answer being 'No' to each of these questions, can I not get away quickly without nosing into the why and wherefore?"

Marsh was of course a native of New Zealand, but here tries to observe the country from the outside, with a distinct cultural cringe; in a letter to his colleague, Alleyn comments

They are extremely nice fellows and good policemen, and I hope I shan't get on their nerves. One has to keep up a sort of strenuous heartiness, which I find a little fatiguing.

Meanwhile every policeman we meet has heard of Alleyn, hero-worships him, and wants him to be informally involved in the case; this is obviously a narrative necessity, but it can get a bit tiresome. (Though we do learn that Alleyn joined the Met before "Lord Trenchard's scheme" (Hendon Police College), and started as a constable in Poplar.) Really, the only part of the plot that needs this setting rather than a rural English town is a bit dealing with a Maori idol and an English-educated Maori doctor who can explain all about it (and about the place of the Maori in contemporary New Zealand, in a way which seems desperately clichéd now but was probably a step ahead of the "howling savages" which would have been the usual assumption of the day).

There is subtlety here (should the widow, who's been working under her maiden name, now be called "Mrs Meyer" or "the Dacres woman", and what are the implications of either), and a lovely moment when someone looks "unpleasantly protective" of his intended victim. Several of the personalities seen in Enter a Murderer are shuffled round: this time there's a sensible (though high-strung) leading lady, and an over-dramatising beginner who puts everyone's backs up, and the usual cast of minor names who attack everyone on general principles. (We're told the company was a happy family before this happened, but I'm not convinced.)

But we do at last get away from the principle of reconstructing the crime to cause the villain to betray him/herself – this is honest detective work leading to a safe arrest, though it is all wrapped up in another letter rather than played out in narrative.

This is a more conventional puzzle than many of Marsh's stories, but several of the characters manage to show through anyway, and her love for New Zealand and the theater is always apparent. Followed by Artists in Crime.

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Previous in series: Death in Ecstasy | Series: Roderick Alleyn | Next in series: Artists in Crime

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