RogerBW's Blog

Light Thickens, Ngaio Marsh 25 January 2018

1982 classic English detective fiction; thirty-second and last of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Peregrine Jay is putting on Macbeth at the Dolphin, but tensions are running high and not all the cast will make it to the end of the run.

Actually, the bulk of the book is not about the murder but about the production of the play: how one goes about it, what decisions the producer is making and why, and how things come together or don't. Marsh had two productions of Macbeth under her belt, from 1946 and 1962, and this feels like notes for a third. (Death at the Dolphin had a similar separation between the theatre and the detective stories, but it works better here.)

Some of the characters from Death at the Dolphin are back (it's been "more than twenty years", though only 16 years separate the books), and they mostly haven't changed much – though the ingénue who was getting involved with the young hero on that occasion (as most of Marsh's ingénues do) now, as a wife and mother, shows no sign of her previous career. Yes, she's a good partner to Peregrine, and takes a lively interest in the production, but you'd never know from reading this that she'd once acted herself; and yet she's roughly of an age with people like Faye Dunaway and Anneke Wills and Helen Reddy, none of whom seem to have felt that marriage should end their stage careers.

Although the setting has some of the usual Marsh timelessness, there are modern touches, particularly the bolshie Equity rep (who's been on a long tour of Russia with the "Leftist Players"). There's the slightly strange stage-combat and sword expert who insists that it should be called a claidheamh-mòr rather than a claymore (though Marsh doesn't explain how she thinks the pronunciation should differ). And, finally and at last, there's a juvenile who isn't entirely horrid.

The boy was cheeky and he showed spirit and breeding. His mama returned, a quietly dressed woman from whom he had inherited his vowels.

It's a great piece of story-telling which conveys the feeling of being involved in a theatrical production that mostly goes right. (Say I, who's never had anything to do with theatre from the inside. But I trust Marsh to have got this correct.) One feels one would recognise the principals if one met them.

Dougal Macdougal arrived. He never "came in." There was always the element of an event. He could be heard loudly greeting the more important members of the company who had now assembled, and not forgetting to say "Morning, morning" to the bit-parts.

In fact, the only thing that doesn't hold together well is the murder mystery. Someone's playing practical jokes, apparently trying to make the production live up to the play's bad-luck reputation (about which Marsh is distinctly dismissive, and the superstitious characters are also the stupid ones); and later, someone gets decapitated, in a gloriously baroque sequence which, thanks to everyone's knowledge that the props are realistic, ends up with an actual severed head being brought on stage for the final scene. But although there's a certain amount of flailing about, there's never really any significant evidence pointing at anyone except the guilty party, which makes the process of deduction practically an afterthought. The latter third or so of the book, dealing with the investigation, is much less impressive than the earlier parts.

So as a detective story it isn't all that good, but as a story of the theatre and as a story about people it's a triumph.

Looking back over Marsh's novels, though, I don't think that's something that can be said in general. After an uneven start, she mastered the technicalities (and sensibly disposed of Nigel Bathgate after Swing, Brother, Swing) and went to work on making the characters more interesting; towards the end, the technicalities slip, but the characters remain good. I'd recommend most of her books to the mystery fan who hasn't read them, though I think the ones from the late 1930s and 1940s are probably best.

(So that's the Marsh/Allingham reading finished - which turned into Marsh/Allingham/Brand. Next up, I suspect, Sayers; I've read all of them before, but not reviewed most of them.)

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