RogerBW's Blog

When In Rome, Ngaio Marsh 22 November 2017

1970 classic English detective fiction; twenty-sixth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Various people have gathered for an expensive but exclusive tour of the sights of Rome; some of them are Bad Lots, and some of them will die.

This is a strangely schizophrenic book. Some of it, the tourist stuff in Rome (still exotic in 1970) and the mechanics of who-could-have-been-where, work well; other parts, like all the drug references, rather less so. This is a book in which, when someone says "You don't get hooked. Not on pot." this is a clear sign that he is a Villain. "Groovy" and "turn on" and "freak-out" are spattered across the pages as from a particularly messy literary shotgun. This is much more a book stuck in its time than the ones set in the 1930s.

Much of the action takes place in a fictionalised version of the Basilica of San Clemente (more pictures here), well-described and with the Mithraic connection particularly mentioned. The core of the book, though, as usual with Marsh, is the cast of oddities, and to my mind things flail about a bit at the start: various people we've never heard of before live their lives, sometimes hint at minor villainy, and end up on the tour, and we have no particular reason to be interested in any of them at first.

As things start to be resolved, the characters become more defined and interesting, and Alleyn finds himself working with his counterparts in the Italian police; they may be somewhat stereotyped, but are mostly presented as having their own way of doing things which works for them, rather than being wrong; mostly, and less so as things go on.

There are good bits here, but there's a fair bit of hard going to get to them. It feels at times like an attempt to justify the author's holiday in Rome as a research trip and therefore a legitimate business expense. Followed by Tied Up In Tinsel.

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