RogerBW's Blog

Photo Finish, Ngaio Marsh 21 January 2018

1980 classic English detective fiction; thirty-first of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The Great Soprano is being pestered by a paparazzo; her millionaire friend takes her to a retreat in the New Zealand bush, with just a dozen good friends – including the young composer she's taken over, and whose new opera she's going to put on in a private performance. But all that's not going to stop someone from killing her.

All right, there is a private helicopter, but apart from that detail and a few other period references (like the Jacqueline Kennedy paparazzi business from 1972) this story could easily have been set in the 1950s or even the 1930s. Once more, a group of variously dislikeable people is gathered in a country house, and a storm blows up to keep them isolated while murder is done.

She towed Troy up to Alleyn and unfolded this proposition. Her manner suggested the pleasurable likelihood of his offering to seduce her at the first opportunity. "So you come to the salon too," she said, "to hear music?" And in her velvet tones the word music was fraught with much the same meaning as china in The Country Wife.

The parts have been shuffled around again, but La Sommita distinctly echoes Mary Bellamy from False Scent; there are still the Young Hopeful, the Horrible Gay Man (most of Marsh's gay men are horrible), and a variety of rude mechanicals; various business types never seem to get much in the way of personality, and this isn't really a story about personality – which is a shame, because for me that's where Marsh most often shines.

The solution does not satisfy. Yes, it answers the basic detective-story puzzles of who could have been when and where and who's lying about it, but it's all quite straightforward, the scheme doesn't seem to match the character of the murderer as has previously been established, and the motivation is dreary. It's more of a technical mystery in the late Agatha Christie vein than what I expect from Marsh.

But what this book is for, at least for me, is another chance to see Alleyn and Troy working together on a murder (for all he wishes she were well off out of it), keeping the corpse safe and doing some deduction while waiting for the storm to blow itself out and the police to arrive.

Bell-birds chimed through the bush like rain distilled into sound.

It's still not the good Marsh, but it's decent. Followed by Light Thickens.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 12:32pm on 21 January 2018

    Do you think the suspects all being dislikeable counts as a trope? After all, if they were all nice people, we the readers might take against the detectives who are prying into their lives.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 04:52pm on 21 January 2018

    Many mystery stories fall into one of the general classes of "everyone loved the victim, so who could possibly have had a motive" and "everyone hated the victim, so anyone could have had a motive, but who could actually have done it". Both of them serve as means to keep more of the suspects in play for more of the book than if one could start quickly eliminating some of them, and Christianna Brand in particular is very good at making everyone have a personality suitable for a murderer.

    The tougher trick, I think, is to make some or all of the suspects sympathetic, to the point where one may feel quite disappointed that X has been caught because (apart from the whole murder thing) he's a really good person.

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