Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982)
Death And The Dancing Footman
Surfeit of Lampreys
A Man Lay Dead
Artists in Crime
Death In A White Tie
Death In Ecstasy
About the Author photo by Austin Youell
Death And The Dancing Footman
Everyone has his secret fear of which even his closest friends know or suspect nothing. Jonathan Royal's private hell was the fear of boredom. He was elderly, unmarried, well-off, secure in his fine house and large estate. But he was bored; he must devise new means of distraction. He had his interests, of course, such as supporting surrealist plays; indeed he had done much to establish the reputation of young Aubrey Mandrake, the poetic dramatist.
And it was to Aubrey that he explained his latest idea. This was his invitation to seven friends whom he knew were each hateful to one another. That is to say, not everyone hated everyone else, but no single member of this party would be on good terms with all the rest only Aubrey himself; who knew none of them, would be an `outsider', so to speak.
The seven friends would arrive the following day at Jonathan's home to spend the week-end. None of them knew of the impending presence of the others, and once assembled it would be very difficult to separate. The winter was severe; they would have to stay indoors, remote from other diversions. Jonathan himself would blandly act as host, assiduously keeping the party in being.
It would be the greatest fun to watch their reactions, to see how they would have to settle down to the enforced communal isolation. It might well give Aubrey an idea for a play. It would, in fact, be a play in itself, as Jonathan delightedly pointed out, with Aubrey as audience.
And a play it was to be, with the 'curtain' coming down on the miserable exit of a murderer. But that last act was not to be written by Jonathan, but by Inspector Alleyn, who had been called in to unravel the `plot'.
Surfeit Of Lampreys
This book is one of the few detective stories by a living writer to show signs of becoming a classic. For instance it is the only crime story to have been included in the St James's Library of distinguished fiction and non-fiction:
`Miss Marsh bounds to the top of the ladies' class . . a brilliantly readable drawing-room detective story, is far and away the best she has yet written.' - Maurice Richardson in The Observer
Charming, eccentric, Micawberish . . . Chief Inspector Alleyn as distinguished and sympathetic as ever. This is a capital detective story: gruesome crimes, light relief, sprightly characters, good plot, resolute and broad-minded detection.' - The Sunday Times
`There is no doubt that Miss Ngaio Marsh is among the most brilliant of those authors who are transforming the detective story from a mere puzzle into a novel with many other qualities besides the challenge to our wits.' - The Times Literary Supplement
A Man Lay Dead
However fearful the thought of murder may be, and however horrible it is in fact, murder does exercise a strange fascination over men's minds so that paradoxically they are quite ready to see it enacted on the stage or screen, or even to take part in a mock murder as a party game.
Sir Hubert Handesley was famous for his house-parties; indeed he had every right to be, for he planned these occasions with as much care and forethought as a producer would the presentation of a new play. Nigel Bathgate considered himself rather a lucky young man, when through his cousin Charles, who was also to be of the party, he secured an invitation to one of these week-ends.
He was not to be disappointed, for this time the host had planned a game of murder, which was to be different from the one usually played at such parties. One of the guests would be secretly chosen as the murderer and within a given period of time would have to `get his man' by tapping him on the shoulder and telling him that he was 'murdered'. This was to be done, of course, at a suitable moment when the others were not present, and to ensure that he would not be found out, all the lights would be extinguished for a few moments after the murder' had been committed.
And this indeed took place, only when the lights flashed on again and everybody came rushing down to the Hall to see who had been killed', did they discover Charles on the floor - with a knife through his back.
The inquest which was to follow this game, and in which the other guests were to take part, was now taken over in deadly earnest by Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn of the Yard - and the consequences of that game were to be more terrible than Sir Hubert could have imagined when he planned his house-party with such zest.
Artists in Crime
There is sometimes a macabre pleasure in planning a murder, in going into every detail as to how the victim can be killed beyond any possible doubt. It can even be rather amusing to try to prove - theoretically at least - that such a violent deed can be perpetrated without the criminal being found out.
The group of art students gathered in Agatha Troy's studio spent just such a morning discussing how a model could be killed by the simple expedient of placing her in a certain pose in which she would certainly be stabbed, quickly, and one might almost say unobtrusively. The rub that detracts from such ghoulish enjoyment is of course the fact that unless you are prepared to run grave risks, the foolproof murder remains simply an idea. In this case, however, it gave someone the very idea that was wanted, for this person decided that it would be the best way of eliminating little Sonia Gluck - the model herself - who, although exceedingly good to behold, was vastly provoking to live with. Whoever planned the murder would, with a little judicious manipulation, not actively have to carry it out. The `props' and an unfortunate third party would do the rest.
Such is the situation that in fact develops; such is the problem, at once neat and complex, that confronts Inspector Alleyn. The mystery is further complicated by the students themselves, who exploit this dramatic situation to indulge in histrionics that are as baffling as they are amusing.
Death In A White Tie
Death by suffocation is much quicker than most people imagine. Whoever murdered Lord Robert Gospell (`Bunchy' to his friends) must have calculated on this, for he knew that death would have to be quick enough and quiet enough to enable him to surprise and smother Bunchy in a brief taxi ride together - and then emerge dressed as his victim whilst the taxi continued its journey to deposit the `other passenger'. This much Chief Inspector Alleyn can deduce when he proceeds to probe the mystery of his friend's murder. For Bunchy was his friend, and in a way he felt partly responsible for Bunchy's death, because he had been helping Alleyn privately in trying to establish the identity of a particularly loathsome blackmailer. In fact Bunchy was about to go on to Scotland Yard the very hour that he was murdered, and all that eventually reached Alleyn was - his corpse.
Several people might have done it for very obvious reasons, but unfortunately the motives were almost too obvious to bear examination. For instance, Bunchy's young nephew Donald had quarrelled with his unele about his debts, and Donald was his uncle's heir. It might be Captain Withers, about whom Bunchy knew more than Withers liked to think. It might be General Halcut-Hackett who believed that his wife was blackmailed by Bunchy. It might indeed have been any one of the eight hundred guests who attended Lady Carrados ball on the night of the murder.
`It is exciting to the last degree, and the writing has a distinction that puts the author in the front rank of crime story writers.' - The Times
Death In Ecstasy
There are many strange places of worship in London. The blank face of a Cockney Sunday masks all sorts of curious activities. If, for instance, a few years ago, you had gone down the King's Road towards Knocklatchers Row maybe you would have chanced on just such a queer sect intent on their devotions at the House of the Sacred Flame.
Father Garnette did not fail his congregation there in the supply of excitement and outlet. His services were long, peculiar, even spectacular.
On the very afternoon of her death, Cara Quayne was to have been initiated as the Chosen Vessel. The ceremony was in fact already proceeding, when, after drinking of some special cup necessary to the rites being performed, she dropped dead. For a moment the others thought she was in a trance, then that she had been so uplifted by her experience that she had died in ecstasy. They were appalled when they discovered that the cup had been poisoned, and that she had been murdered.
This immediately provoked outbursts of jealousy, wild accusations, and even petulance on the part of the other members of that hitherto austere sect. It provided Nigel Bathgate, a chance spectator at this ceremony, with several odd clues which he did not fail to pass on to Chief Inspector Alleyn, when that eminent representative of the Yard arrived on the scene to unravel one of the weirdest and tightest problems of his career.
In Final Curtain Ngaio Marsh's interest in drama and her knowledge of actors and their ways are given full play. Sir Henry Ancred, the celebrated Shakespearian actor, wishes to have his portrait painted in the role of Macbeth by Agatha Troy, the famous artist - but is only willing to spare her a week of his time in which to complete it! She is reluctant to go to his home, Ancreton, as she is awaiting the arrival after a long absence of her husband, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, at any moment. But such is the persuasive power of Sir Henry's family that she undertakes the commission and is whisked off to Ancreton, where the stage-like setting and the histrionic behaviour of the large family intrigue her, and all her powers of observation are needed when, amid a welter of practical jokes, Sir Henry dies and Chief Inspector Alleyn is called in to investigate.
`Final Curtain is the sort of comfortable delight that occasionally rewards a long and assiduous devotion to detective stories. What a joy it is to find a detective story written with grace and culture, moving easily amongst well-observed characters. This is a book to buy, keep, and re-read for pleasure in its workmanship when you have forgotten the first quick excitement of the plot.' - Observer
Critics Comments (1950/60's)
`There is no doubt that Miss Ngaio Marsh is among the most brilliant of those authors who are transforming the detective story from a mere puzzle into a novel with many other qualities besides the challenge to our wits.' The Times Literary Supplement
Of Death in Ecstasy
`A really thrilling thriller which deals cunningly with murder, death, and hocus-pocus.' Evening News
`I can find no point at which Ngaio Marsh does not equal the best of all-rounders.' Observer
Of Enter A Murderer
`An original and well-knit novel, with the slickest of final curtains' Observer
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ngaio Marsh, direct descendant of the de Marescos, piratical Lords of Lundy, and granddaughter of Empire pioneers in New Zealand, where she was educated, at the age of fifteen went to an art school, where she worked for five years. Her knowledge of painters and their ways appears in many of her novels. Then for two years she toured with a repertory company, gaining the thorough knowledge of the stage which is also reflected in her work, as is her knowledge of house decoration, for which she started a business when she came to England. During one wet week-end she read what was almost the first contemporary crime story to come her way. Until then, Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, and Austin Freeman had been the sole authors of her escape literature. After reading this story - she fancies it was an early Christie - it seemed to her that she might venture to have a shot at something in the same vein. As a kind of hobby and with no real hope of publication she wrote her first novel, A Man Lay Dead, scribbling it down with a lead pencil in twopenny exercise books. On returning to New Zealand, she left this story with an agent, and was astonished to learn some six months later, that a publisher had been found.
Most of her writing was done at her home in New Zealand. 'I like to study thoroughly the topic with which I deal, as detective stories demand exact knowledge. I wrote a good deal for newspapers before I began my novels, and two years on the stage also stood me in good stead. I prefer writing about the stage to any other topic, but one must have variety of settings.' She spent some time on the Continent, and London's worst winter in years did not dismay her. 'It is the most comfortable place in the world to work in ' she said.
In 1948 Ngaio Marsh was awarded an O.B.E. for services in connection with drama and literature in New Zealand.
BIBLIOGRAPHY All titles with Inspector/Superintendent Roderick Alleyn
- A Man Lay Dead (Bles,1934) (Penguin 210, 1939)
- Enter a Murderer (Bles, 1935) (Penguin 152)
- The Nursing-Home Murder (in collaboration with Henry Jellett) (Bles, 1935) (Penguin 355)
- Death in Ecstasy (Bles, 1936) (Penguin 249, 1940)
- Vintage Murder (Bles, 1937) (Penguin 253)
- Artists in Crime (Bles, 1938) (Penguin 353, 1941)
- Death in a White Tie (Bles, 1938) (Penguin 450, 1944)
- Overture to Death (Collins, 1939) (Penguin 705)
- Death at the Bar (Collins, 1940) (Penguin 706)
- Suffeit of Lampreys (Collins, 1941) (Penguin 1100, 1955)
- Death and the Dancing Footman (Collins, 1942) (Penguin 704, 1949)
- Colour Scheme (Collins, 1943)
- Died in the Wool (Collins, 1945)
- Final Curtain (Collins, 1947) (Penguin 1261, 1958)
- Swing, Brother, Swing (Collins, 1949)
- Opening Night (Collins, 1951)
- Spinsters in Jeopardy (Collins, 1954)
- Scales of Justice (Collins, 1955)
- Off with His Head (Collins, 1957)
- Singing in the Shrouds (Collins, 1959)
- False Scent (Collins, 1960)
- Hand in Glove (Collins, 1962)
- Dead Water (Collins, 1964)
- Death at the Dolphin (Collins, 1967)
- Clutch of Constables (Collins, 1968)
- When in Rome (Collins, 1970)
- Tied Up in Tinsel (Collins, 1972)
- Black as Hes Painted (Collins, 1974)
- Last Ditch (Collins, 1977)
- Grave Mistake (Collins, 1978)
- Photo-Finish (Collins, 1980)
- Light Thickens (Collins, 1982)