Death at the Dophin by Ngaio Marsh
Ngaio Marsh loved the theatre, and in this 1967 novel she lets her passion have free reign. An old, ruined theatre is miraculously restored, its opening production given generous backing, and with a unique artifact to engender more publicity, it is a dream come true for young playwright and theatre director Peregrine Jay. For a situation which started with a nightmare, this murder mystery shows off to best advantage Marsh’s deep knowledge and passion for the dramatic life, as it ranges from the first sight of a theatre which gleams only in Peregrine’s imagination through to a challenging cast of characters all with their own agenda. The main setting of a dilapidated theatre being transformed into the dream building is well established down the smallest detail of the dolphin decoration in this well written book, as it stands surrounded by a London of the night, complete with shady eateries. The characters who form the main body of the suspects are the cast of the play depicting Shakespeare, ranging from the temperamental lead actor, through the effective leading lady, to a difficult child star. With a skillful designer and a mysterious wealthy backer, when a tragedy occurs “Inspector”, now Superintendent Roderick Alleyn has a full list of suspects to investigate when he is called in to sort out many questions. This is a dramatic mystery in all senses, and a well constructed novel of red herrings, histrionics and vivid characters constructed with a sure hand.
The novel opens with Peregrine trying to obtain the keys to allow him to view The Dolphin which is for sale in its wrecked state. There is reluctance to let him go unsupervised; there has been considerable damage, the stage presents a particular danger, there is a rumour of a tramp’s death in the ruined theatre. Peregrine insists, and with the help of a passing worker effects an entrance. He allows himself to imagine the theatre in its glorious heyday, but soon finds himself in a desperate situation. His mysterious rescuer wants to do more than restore him to safety. He wants to become a benefactor with a seemingly unlimited generosity, even offering the use of a precious item which inspires Peregrine to write a play and Jeremy Jones, his flat mate, to design a replica and the set for the opening production of the refurbished Dolphin theatre. All seems to be going well, with publicity and eventually a cast preforming well together. A success seems to be a well in hand, until a series of events has Alleyn and his squad on the scene and investigating.
It is always a satisfying read when a novelist seems to be really enjoying themselves, indulging their real interest in constructing a narrative in a familiar setting with a cast of memorable people. From the “Cast of Characters” list at the beginning of the story, through to the “empurpled” face of the temperamental Marcus Knight, this is a terrific read of theatre, drama and mystery. I found it a really enjoyable read which kept me guessing until the end, annoyed at the child actor, watching Peregrine’s pride in everything going well, and generally appreciating the construction of this novel. One or two of the offstage stories are a little difficult to credit, but overall this is a splendid book of its time, represents a challenge for Alleyn, and is a good example of Marsh’s later work.