RogerBW's Blog

False Scent, Ngaio Marsh 03 September 2017

1960 classic English detective fiction; twenty-first of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The famous comedic actress Mary Bellamy has been getting increasingly troublesome, and now feels that all of her best friends have betrayed her. But only one of them is going to kill her.

The means of murder is treated as a mystery, though the components of it are heavily foreshadowed in the text and indeed in the title. Mostly this story is about the people, and in particular two of the servants: the dresser, who's Mary's devoted partisan, and the family nurse, who's thrown in more with Mary's adopted son (who is a standard Marsh Young Lover, and whom one therefore assumes will turn out to be innocent, but who is nonetheless a suspect thanks to his wish to conceal certain information). Both those servants are horrible people, but in their own distinctive ways, and their interaction determines much of the course of the investigation.

"I've been talking," Mr. Fox remarked, "to a press photographer and the servants."

"And I," Alleyn said sourly, "have been eavesdropping on a pair of lovers. How low can you get? Next stop, with Polonius behind the arras in a bedroom."

The action takes place almost entirely in one house, over a single evening, and one assumes that as before Marsh was consciously using a theatrical arrangement even though there's no evidence that she ever tried to adapt this or her other "theatre" mysteries as plays.

The person was subjected to masterful but tactful discipline. That which, unsubjected, declared itself centrally, was forced to make a less aggressive reappearance above the seventh rib where it was trapped, confined and imperceptibly distributed.

It's all portrayed as a bit of a lark at times, in spite of the murder, but everyone has something to hide, and sooner or later they get round to confessing it. Alleyn doesn't get to display as much personality as usual, which is a shame, but Fox is back and on fine form.

Bellamy herself is something of a stereotype, the ageing actress ferociously jealous of younger women, but some of the other characters manage similar situations without throwing tantrums; this is not so much Marsh's supposed misogyny as Marsh's dislike of a certain style of personality.

There's a startling mention of "non-U" language (oh yes, that happened in the 1950s, didn't it?), which is really the only thing that makes this a post-war book; it could easily have been set earlier.

"So you were right, Mr. Alleyn."

"And what satisfaction," Alleyn said wryly, "is to be had out of that?"

Followed by Hand in Glove.

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