I have not read/reviewed nearly enough books this year. In fact, this is the first review since late January. I moved – and all of my books are still packed in boxes in a room that is also packed tightly. It has been frustrating. However, I did read this Ngaio Marsh novel in February – finally getting around to reviewing it now in April. A Man Lay Dead is the first (of thirty-two) Roderick Alleyn mystery. It was first published in 1934. I read the Jove Mysteries 1980 edition.
I have been attempting to read a lot more of the classic detective mystery novels lately. And maybe even some of the not-so classics. Many of these early stories involve the character archetype of the “gentleman detective/burglar.” This includes Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsey, Sherlock Holmes, Albert Campion, and Arsene Lupin. The star detective of this Marsh novel falls under this category. I have a hit-or-miss sort of opinion of these sorts of characters. I love Lupin. I love Poirot and Whimsey. Campion and Alleyn irritate me and I find them pompous and unlikeable. Of course, let’s be honest, I have not really read very many books in any of these series.
The novel that I read before A Man Lay Dead was Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, which was published in 1929. The lesson to be learned between these two novels is clearly: avoid house parties. So, apparently, no matter the decade (1930s or 1990s, etc.) house parties have a strong tendency to turn ugly.
This short novel has sixteen chapters, all of them generally focusing on the true main character, Nigel Bathgate. He, and several others, have been invited to a weekend at Frantock. The group is attending another of Sir Hubert Handesley’s parties. En route to the destination, Bathgate inquires of his distant cousin (Charles Rankin) who will be attending the party. Rankin says “the usuals,” which includes the Wildes and Angela North and Rosamund Grant. Also, a Doctor Foma Tokareff – a Russian doctor whom Handesley knows from his “Embassy days in Petrograd.”
Not unlike Allingham’s novel, this house party decides to play with a particular rare and interesting dagger. I am not sure what the authors were thinking utilizing this prop. Do people really go to house parties and fanny around with daggers? Does anyone really think that this is a good idea and will end well? Have they considered Scrabble or Yahtzee? Anyway, no reader should be surprised that there is a murder – yes, the dagger was used. Second lesson: If you simply must attend a house party and someone hauls out a dagger – for God’s sake, leave the house immediately.
Alleyn shows up to investigate the murder. He is cryptic and mysterious and annoyingly arrogant. He begins his investigation by interrogating the members of the house. However, his interrogation is certainly unique – he suggests they have a “mock trial” through which he will learn the details of the night’s events. Nigel Bathgate is the most cooperative and interested member of the party. At some point he seems like he wants Alleyn to think highly of him. At other points, he is clearly not comfortable with revealing all of his thoughts to the detective. Angela North is a fiery young girl, who is not cowed by Alleyn, nor impressed by Bathgate, though she does take a shine to him.
Alleyn does not do all the work himself. He comes with a team of helpers (to do the grunt work). Eventually, the storyline moves beyond the Frantock property and there are adventures involving Russian spies and gangs and foreign agents.
Overall, a lot better than Allingham’s showing. Still, Nigel is the star and he is the one I enjoyed. Alleyn was average and blah at best. I am slightly put off with the “Russians are villains” trope, though. I do think I will read more of Marsh’s novels. Everyone who wants to read 1920s and 1930s detective novels should add this to their list.