Death at the Dolphin by Ngaio Marsh – a theatrical murder mystery written with relish

Death at the Dolphin (The Ngaio Marsh Collection) eBook: Marsh, Ngaio: Kindle Store

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.    

Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh – a classic story of Roderick Allen investigating a small community affected by a mysterious spring

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Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh

A classic Roderick Alleyn novel is usually a good read, and this one contains a character who has been a long term friend, or rather fearsome tutor. The water of the title is in a Cornish village, Portcarrow, and the whole story revolves around a spring that brings apparent healing and a lot of trouble as a community seizes on its commercial opportunities. Originally published in 1964, it is a book of its time in some respects, but the twists in the events are genuine surprises, and it takes a lot of imagination and clever work by Alleyn and his associates to sort out the suspects in a small community. Raising some interesting points of the time as some of the attitudes to women and children with problems, it is also a challenging novel in its context. The setting is so well described that it is almost visual, and this is altogether an interesting novel of crime and detection. The creation of characters was definitely one of Marsh’s greatest strengths, and she manages to cram such a variety of well delineated people in this book that it possibly explains her love of the stage in filling a cast of characters. This is a fascinating book of detection and more in the fine tradition of classic crime writing.

Chapter One is a “Prelude” in which the story of a young boy is recalled. Wally is a boy who is from a difficult home and has extra problems, but at the moment he is being bullied because of his hands which are covered in warts. Sobbing, he runs to a spring where a mysterious Green Lady tells him to wash them in the water. Within hours the warts mysteriously disappear, which gives rise to much local gossip. The local pub is the scene of one such discussion, where the landlord is the alcoholic Major Barrimore whose debts are mounting. Miss Cost is a local shopkeeper, who instantly claims that her asthma is cured. There is much publicity about the claims, and the spring is promoted as a healing spot. Various people are quick to take advantage commercially, and many visitors arrive. Meanwhile Alleyn is summoned to an interview with his old tutor, a Miss Pride, who has inherited the island where the spring is situated, and who is determined to close down all exploitation, fearing for the credulous who may be deceived when most desperate. Alleyn is concerned for her as she makes a visit, realizing the vested interests at stake, but the situation is far more complex than he realizes.

The huge cast of named characters in this book are so well described that it is easy to work out who is involved at any stage. Two younger people become involved, and Patrick and Jenny are useful observers and agents during the investigations that soon become necessary. This vivid story brings in so much of the time in which it is written, such as the difficulties of living in a small community where gossip is so insidious, and normally capable people are caught up into all sorts of difficulties as a result. Miss Emily Pride is a determined lady, and Alleyn’s fear mixed with concern for her is particularly memorable. Fans of Marsh’s Alleyn stories will enjoy this episode, and those who are discovering her writing for the first time will also find much to consider in this novel.

Hand in Glove by Ngaio Marsh – an excellent novel of twentieth century detective fiction

Hand in Glove (Roderick Alleyn, #22) by Ngaio Marsh

Hand in Glove by Ngaio Marsh

A 1962 novel of family squabbles, muddled letters and an unusual murder is an enjoyable read from an experienced writer of careful, if lively, detection. Featuring Superintendent Roderick Alleyn and the reliable Inspector Fox, this murder mystery of clashing lifestyles and a household under strain represents a well balanced, plotted and well written detective story of a solid type. Marsh is excellent at evoking an atmosphere of a detective carefully weighing up the facts while various characters range around him. The characters are so well drawn as to evoke real reactions in the reader, such as the snobbish Mr. Percival Pyke Period, so keen on family connections and condolences, and the detestable Leonard Leiss, who almost believes himself to be in American films with his slang and dress. The women are also well drawn, as the wonderful, much married Desiree, Lady Bantling attempts to waft her way through family quarrels, and Mary Ralston or Moppett alternates between dubious behaviour with her ‘friend’ Leonard and being a vulnerable young woman. Thus Marsh has skillfully assembled a cast of characters who argue, agree and number amongst them a murderer. Alleyn’s masterly assembling of evidence and characters in a limited number of settings reveals something of her theatrical skills, allowing the detection to proceed in an orderly manner. This is an engaging and enjoyable mystery which marks a satisfying progress via stolen items, small but significant clues and much more to a revealing denouement.

The novel opens with a peaceful start to the day in Mr Pyke Period’s establishment, as his manservant Alfred brings him morning tea. A luncheon is planned, to include a new secretary, Nicola Maitland – Maine, among others, but the peace is soon disturbed by Harold Cartell and his ill trained dog, Pixie, known to Alfred and Mrs Mitchell, the cook, as a particular nuisance. Nicola arrives in the company of a young man, Andrew, who has a request to make to Harold, who is one of the trustees of his late father’s estate. Andrew is also Desiree’s son, who was unhappily married to Harold at one point. A fairly disastrous luncheon occurs, which includes Constance Cartell, Harold’s sister and adoptive aunt to Moppett, who has invited herself and Leonard to lunch. No one is impressed with the young couple’s behaviour, especially when a valuable cigarette case goes missing. A fashionable treasure hunt and other unusual events means that when murder is discovered and Scotland Yard, in the persons of Alleyn, Fox and others arrive, they have a lot to investigate with several potential suspects.

I found this murder mystery very engaging and entertaining, with a limited geographical area to concentrate on and a satisfactory cast of characters. Leonard and to a lesser extent Moppett are genuinely annoying, and Harold with his dog upsetting to the household. Alleyn’s careful investigation takes in several background discoveries which add a great deal to the overall effect. The introduction of his artist wife Troy is well done, and removes him for the list of morose single male detectives. This book has been successfully adapted for television, but having seen that does not remove the pleasure to found in reading this excellent novel which I recommend to all fans of twentieth century detective fiction.