RogerBW's Blog

Overture to Death, Ngaio Marsh 28 November 2016

1939 classic English detective fiction; eighth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Miss Campanula was killed by a booby-trapped piano, but was she really the intended victim?

Marsh, a successful theatrical director when not writing, turns her blowtorch on the world of amateur dramatics. In order to raise money for a new piano in the village hall at Pen Cuckoo in deepest Dorset, a one-night show is being put on. So we are introduced to Jocelyn Jerningham, the Squoire; Henry, his son, who plans to marry; Eleanor Prentice and Idris Campanula, spinsters of the parish with their eyes on the rector; the rector and his daughter, the latter the object of Henry's affections; the village doctor with a bedridden wife, and the Scarlet Woman with whom, everyone assumes, he's having a shameless affair.

Those are pretty much the victim and the suspects. Marsh does a great job of keeping everyone well-distinguished, with quirks of personality that affect the reconstruction of events after the crime is committed, and compared with say Vintage Murder or even Artists in Crime there's never any sense of feeling lost as to who's who.

There's repressed sexuality all over the place as the spinsters compete for the favour of the rector (who's not inclined to favour either of them, thank you very much), not so much because they want him in particular but because he's the only form of companionship ever likely to become available to them. There's a local small boy who likes playing tricks. There's the matter of drawing-pin holes in the piano. By the end of the book I had the right party very much at the top of my suspect list, but that list still had more than one person on it.

Nigel Bathgate makes a surprising return after his absence from Death in a White Tie, and alas there's no Troy here, though Alleyn does write her a rather fine letter that's a mixture of summing-up and romantic. For my taste, with Alleyn away from London, there's not enough of him as a person; the young lovers get a bit more time, and may hide a dark secret, but whether or not one of them is guilty we know we'll never see them again.

It's a good solid piece, one of Marsh's more conventional ones, but it gets the job done.

Followed by Death at the Bar.

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