RogerBW's Blog

Last Ditch, Ngaio Marsh 23 December 2017

1976 classic English detective fiction; twenty-ninth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn's son Rick is trying to write, staying in a rented room on a Channel Island. But while a riding accident might just be disturbing, it seems that murder is never far away. Fortunately, neither is his father.

Not that said father wants to be called in; he may worry for his son's safety, but he wants to leave him alone. But that isn't going to happen, of course.

"Looked like a straightforward accident but they're not satisfied. Inquest adjourned. Thing is: the super's been inconsiderate enough to perforate his appendix and they want us to move in. Did you say anything?"

"No."

"There's a funny noise."

"It may be my teeth. Grinding."

It's unfortunate that the plot itself is pretty straightforward. There are only a few people who could have killed the rider, even if she was the local good time had by all, and while the motive might have been outside the reader's reasonable expectations in the 1970s it isn't now. There's drug-smuggling going on (and the usual badly-observed drug addiction) which may be connected, and every supposition or guess made about how that's working is entirely correct. It feels at times as though Marsh is finding the mechanics of the detective-story somewhat tedious, and giving them the bare minimum of attention so as to get to what she wants to write about: the people.

The presence of Louis Pharamond on the front had the effect of turning it into some kind of resort—some little harbor only just "discovered," perhaps, but shortly to be developed and ruined. His blue silk polo-necked jersey, his sharkskin trousers, his golden wristwatch, even the medallion he wore on a thin chain were none of them excessive but one felt it was only by a stroke of good luck that he hadn't gone too far with, say, some definitely regrettable ring or even an earring.

and even one of the villains

lounged against the table with unconvincing insolence

An important secondary thread deals with Rick's developing a hopeless passion for a married lady, and this seemed as though it might have been leading into interesting character development, but it's abruptly dropped half-way through when it's time for the action and there's never any real resolution; that's rather a shame, as it's well-observed. Rick is a bit of a young idiot, though, and one doesn't really get a sense of how old he is; though he's meant to have been to university he comes over as somewhat younger. (It's been 22 years since he was an independent-minded child in Spinsters in Jeopardy, but one can't take that as a guide; it's been 42 years since we first met Alleyn in A Man Lay Dead.)

When one of the self-important family in the Big House turns out to have been born a Lamprey, as mentioned in the tenth Alleyn book, one is somehow not in the least surprised.

It's not a book that works well on a technical level, but I found it worth it for the people. Followed by Grave Mistake.

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See also:
Surfeit of Lampreys, Ngaio Marsh

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