RogerBW's Blog

Death at the Dolphin, Ngaio Marsh 23 October 2017

1967 classic English detective fiction; twenty-fourth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Playwright and director Peregrine Jay is handed the dilapidated Dolphin Theatre, and is making a success of it, at least until the night-watchman is murdered. US vt Killer Dolphin.

This is an odd book: one can readily see the seams showing, as the Bitchy Theatre Story is added once again to the Detective Novel but Marsh doesn't stir quite enough and there are great big lumps of one or the other. Most obviously, the titular death doesn't happen until nearly half-way through, and most of what goes before is much more the theatrical clash of personalities than the setup for who's going to fill the roles of murderer and victim.

There's the Young Couple whom even Marsh is clearly starting to regard as a bit superfluous to the whole business, one of whom is the initial viewpoint character; otherwise Marsh manages to be reasonably original in her cast, rather than recycling from her earlier theatrical mysteries. (The Supporting Actress Scorned isn't as developed as one might have liked, but the Horrible Child Actor is particularly effective.)

Alas for the plot, there's a particular element of alibi which is so meticulously described, and with a loophole so blatantly unquestioned, that I immediately fastened on it as the obvious explanation, to the detriment of my enjoyment of the evidence and camouflage presented in the rest of the book.

A side element of the plot deals with what might be Hamnet Shakespeare's glove, rediscovered after many years, and consideration of whether it's going to leave the country as was threatened for the Goya Wellington; this may well have caught the mood of the times, but Marsh assumes it will catch the reader's mood and it comes over now as a bit of an alien thing to be worried about. (We now have plenty of horrible private collectors in Britain who'd lock the thing away and only show it to their friends.)

But at this point Marsh seems to be writing primarily to get the people written down; like many detective-story writers she's run out of changes to ring on a murder plot, and it tends to fade into the background or simply be a framework on which to hang sparkling conversation by interesting (if sometimes horrid) people. (And Marsh is just as dismissive of homosexuality as she was back in Death by Ecstasy; I keep reading suggestions that her representations of gay men are unusually progressive, but mostly that seems to consist of having them in the cast at all.)

Followed by Clutch of Constables.

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