Sunday, 5 February 2012

Penguin no. 210: A Man Lay Dead
by Ngaio Marsh

'Perhaps I should say I can talk for fifteen minutes because I should like, if it wouldn't bore you, to go over the history of this case. It is of enormous help, I find, to talk to someone who is not a C.I.D. man. You needn't look so inordinately perky, Bathgate. I don't expect you to solve the mystery; I merely want you to tell me how clever I am, whether you think so or not.'

I have read a handful of Ngaio Marsh titles in the past, and found them to be reasonably enjoyable stories with slightly fantastic murder plots, all featuring the pleasant, if not particularly exciting, CID detective Roderick Alleyn. The prose is perhaps a little old-fashioned, but this also seemed part of their appeal. The only really jarring element was that inevitable paragraph in which the detectives lament that people's expectations are always so ill-informed as a result of reading too much detective fiction, things being so much tougher in real life. Overall though, the few I have read have seemed fine.

And so I was completely unprepared for this book whose tone I disliked almost from the first page. This was mostly due to the attempts at humour, but I also thought the plotting lacked subtlety, as though the characteristic elements of a Golden Age mystery were being ticked off some list. It had the country house location, the small isolated group, several motives, abundant weapons within easy reach, and the idea of murder as a game.

Sir Hubert Hendesley is renowned for the entertainments of his weekend house parties, and on this weekend he is planning a game of Murders. The rules of the game require one guest to be quietly notified of their status as murderer. They are given a day to choose their victim and plan their strategy, and another six hours to put the plan into action, during which time they must get the victim alone, inform them that they are to be the corpse, and switch off the lights. This is the signal that the ‘murder’ has been enacted, and they are allowed two minutes to make their escape and eliminate any evidence. A mock trial will follow, and the house guests will collectively attempt to identify the culprit. However, when the lights are switched back on it is not a pretending corpse that they find, but a real one, pierced through the heart with a thin Russian dagger. And when their mock trial goes ahead, the party guests  find that they are all suspects, and it is Roderick Alleyn who is asking the questions.

There was never any doubt that Charles Rankin would be the victim. He is overwhelmingly unpleasant - a middle-aged lothario who seems to treat women with contempt. As his fellow house guests include his long term girlfriend, his mistress, and his mistress’ cuckolded husband, and as his behavior is completely indiscreet, there are plenty of motives for his murder.  But I couldn’t help wondering, given these inter-relationships, why anyone would assemble such a party, other than that it was necessary for the story. Two rival women and an embarrassed husband – surely a weekend together would be an ordeal even without a murder, so why did they subject themselves to it? Why not decline?

I had a similar problem accepting the murder. Retrospectively it was plausible, if a little unlikely, but only given where everyone was at the time and what they were doing. But murders aren’t planned retrospectively, and I simply couldn’t see how this one could be planned at all. It is impossible to critique it without giving too much away, so I will only note that its success depended on too many factors completely outside the murderer’s control. The slightest difference to where the victim was standing, something that simply couldn’t be known in advance, and it would have failed, and the murderer would have been caught behaving in a way that was completely inexplicable.

To be fair, this was Ngaio Marsh's first attempt at writing a mystery, and she managed to create a character which she then used in another 31 novels. However, the Roderick Alleyn we meet here isn't simply bland, he is completely unappealing: his methods include bullying and manipulation, his humour is facetious and derogatory. He uses pejorative nicknames to describe the servants such as Ethel the Intelligent. He greets the news that he has a murder to investigate with a glee which seems unseemly: 'You've guessed my boyish secret. I've been given a murder to solve - aren't I a lucky little detective?' Even his approach to solving the murder seems to lack any sense of its gravity. In the passage quoted above he outlines his belief that it is of assistance to outline the case to someone outside of C.I.D, but would a policeman seriously choose the local newspaper reporter for his confidant?

So I found it to be a novel with an unsatisfactory plot, some unpleasant characters, and many failed attempts at humour. And I was left with a strong preference for the bland Roderick Alleyn of the later novels, compared with his incarnation here.

And the Penguin-collecting trip: currently snow-bound in London with all flights to Amsterdam cancelled until tomorrow. A long day of queueing and waiting, and now a night in a lovely hotel room supplied by British Airways. And snow! - a rare experience for someone who lives in Perth.


  1. Karyn - glad that you are ensconced in a hotel room. Fingers crossed for your flight tomorrow. I have to say I'm a fan of Ngaio Marsh although I agree her books have dated. I really got to like Roderick Alleyn in later books. This isn't my favourite but I just enjoy the period feel of her writing.

  2. Thanks Sarah - Pam came via Dubai and managed to get to Amsterdam, so I am hopeful that the morning's flight will go ahead. This first day you mostly spend recovering from the flight and adjusting to the time difference, so I haven't really missed all that much.

    I agree with you that the period feel of her writing is appealing, and I usually quite like the fantastic nature of the murder plots, but I was really put off by the tone of this book, including the nicknames for the servants, and (what certainly seemed like) the mocking of the speech and mannerisms of the Russian guest. I recognise it was meant to be funny, but I'm glad she toned those aspects down in her later books.

  3. I've enjoyed her earlier books, but I really did not enjoy the last two that I've read (Colour Scheme and Scales of Justice). I think it's partly that I find her unpleasant characters so grating and tiresome - not that I want a book of Pollyannas.

  4. I have yet to try Marsh, yet I do really want to - though maybe this wouldnt be the best one to start with. Do you, or does anyone else, have any ideas where to start?

    1. Hi Simon,

      There are so many of her books published by Penguin that I want to wait until I get back home and make sure that I'm suggesting the correct title. My first inclination, though, is to partly agree with Peter's comment below, in that I would suggest there are much more interesting and enjoyable Golden Age writers to try instead, such as Michael Innes (Hamlet, Revenge!), Edmund Crispin (The Moving Toyshop), Christianna Brand (Green for Danger), and Ellery Queen.

  5. I've read a number (3 or 4) of Marsh over the last forty years and I've liked none of them. If this is "the Golden Age" then I'm not sorry that it passes me by. Your excellent review reminded me so very much why I don't warm to her writing style even if her later books are not so unappealing in tone as this one.

    To Simon I'd say "don't bother" :-)

  6. Ngaio MArsh comes from the gent detective/manners school of English fiction. She certainly doesn't represent everyone from the period! I think Karyn once again nails the problems, in her review of this book. Alleyn is annoyingly precious, not remotely believable as a police detective. He improves ("Surfeit of Lampreys" is one of my favorite English mysteries), though he still continues to call his #2, Sergeant Fox, "My Foxkin," which sounds more like a pet name for a boyfriend (except Alleyn hates homosexuals, as is made sufficiently clear with his treatment of the shame-making gay caricature characters in "Death in Ecstasy").

  7. Simon, I would start with Artists in Crime and Death in a White Tie, because they introduce Alleyn's wife-to-be, Troy, and are much improved over the earlier ones.



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