Nigel Bathgate

Enter a Murderer

EaMEnter A Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982) is the second book in the Roderick Alleyn police detective series.  It was first published in 1935, but I read the St. Martins Paperback 1998 edition.  Readers cannot help but be told, if they even glance at Marsh’s career and her opus that this novel is significant because it represents one of her novels in which the plot involves the theatre.  The theatre was Marsh’s primary career interest and she was very successful in that line.

Generally, I am disinterested and unamused by stories that take place in and around a theatre. I am oddly above-averagely educated on Shakespeare, the Classic Greek items, and some select modern works. I also have seen a bunch of plays, dramas, and theatre performances of note. I am woefully uneducated regarding Noh work.  However, I usually dislike the whole sphere because there is something unpalatable – to me – about a profession designed to deceive.  Well, to deceive and to be excessively demonstrative.  In my worst moods, if I dislike a person or how they are behaving, I will snarl “Thespian” in a tone that leaves no misunderstanding for how I feel about it all.

Something about the simulacra and simulation. Or maybe the society of the spectacle. Souring and sneering and disdainful….

I mean, in my very worst moods, I admit, I classify those involved with the theatre (stage and film, as it were) as something lower than the criminal class – usually because, well, the criminal seems nearly more honest about his lifestyle. Trust me, a number of people who know this about me usually want to bludgeon me because of this disdain.  I cannot apologize, though, I am wholeheartedly me.

I mention this information, which does not put me in the best light [see what I did there?!], because I knew this novel was theatre-centric and I dreaded reading it.  I knew I would be bored and I would find the characters insufferable.   It was not as bad as all of that, I was definitely being dramatic [heh, heh].  However, it did not engage me, say, like a novel might in a different setting.

Alleyn and Bathgate, which is another of those happy duos we find endemic to detective fiction, are at times annoying both each other and themselves.  Alleyn is so very pompous at times – even his facetious self-effacing is too obvious and arrogant.  But yet – he has some quoteable segments that really make the reader suspect that Alleyn does deserve all of the praise and postering that goes on.  The quotes are just brilliant lines of wit and insight that outshine all of the flaws.

“There’s a murder charge hovering round waiting for somebody, Mr. Saint, and shall we say a drama is being produced which you do not control and in which you play a part that may or may not be significant?  To carry my flight of fancy a bit farther, I may add that the flat-footed old Law is stage manager, producer, and critic.  And I, Mr. Saint, in the words of an old box-office success, ‘I, my Lords, embody the law.’  Sit down if you want to and please keep quiet.” – pg. 53, Chapter 5

Miss Susan Max, though, is my favorite character in the book, and it is easy to see why.  She is “old-school” and seems to be the most honest and fair of the lot.  I know that this is an early work by Marsh because I was able to suspect and then correctly assign the crime to the culprit very early in the work.  I think I was able to do this for two reasons, both are probably due to Marsh just overwriting a bit for both reasons.  The one reason being that I took an instant and immense dislike to the character – and there are a bunch of dislikeable (especially from my perspective) characters! The other reason that Marsh overwrote would be a spoiler if I mentioned it, suffice to say its very Shakespearian [Hamlet] as well.

Marsh is clearly a theatre-expert.  She knows her way around a stage like a boss.  She also knows the temperments, tendencies, and traditions of the theatre.  There is nothing that is lacking in her detail of the setting and background for this story.  I am almost curious to do a more deep critical reading and examine how well her novel does or does not structure like a theatre piece – literally did she move the characters round the storyline as if they were on a somewhat larger stage?  And this is but her second novel, I am sure that Marsh improves as she writes this series, so I am looking forward to watching this idea of mine develop a bit. Or fall flat.

Normally the frequent quoting of famous lines or references to plays/dramas would irritate me a lot because it always feels so…. well… dramatic. Contrived and artificial, I guess. In this novel, there is a fair bit of such “quoting,” but it works contextually, obviously, so it did not annoy me as it would have in a different setting.

“All amateurs are tiresome.  You want to be in on this, but you shy off anything that is at all unpleasant.  We had this out before in the Wilde case.  You’d much better keep out of it, Bathgate.  I should have said so at the beginning.” – pg. 135, Chapter 13

Well, a number of readers have mentioned that “romantic” element that swirls around the major character Stephanie Vaughan and ….. I was going to say Alleyn, but really, I ought to simply say “all the other male characters.”  I read this described as cringey and awkward, etc.  I actually did not find it that way – Marsh sets up the intrigue very nicely:  she describes-without-describing-too-much Vaughan and her appeal and Alleyn’s unique handsomeness.  I do think it concerning that Marsh seems to have perfectly written these scenes and yet let some of the other, more pertinent, scenes go less cared for.

The problem with the novel, overall, is setting up a duo of Bathgate and Alleyn and then having Alleyn nearly constantly play a weird game of push-and-pull with Bathgate.  Supposedly a polished and expert detective, he should know better than to use and abuse Bathgate as he does. I mean, I do not particularly like Bathgate, but I felt sympathy for him because Alleyn treats him like a yo-yo. Once is enough, but it happens repeatedly in the novel – telling me Marsh had not quite worked out, perhaps, how this team was going to operate.

Anyway, I suspect we should hand out copies of this book to all the detectives and interested parties involved in Alec Baldwin’s “shooting accident” on the set of the suspended movie Rust (2021).  And wouldn’t you LOVE to know what Ngaio Marsh’s take on it would be?

Recommended to general readership and vintage mystery fans. I intend to read more in the Alleyn series, of course.

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King! For I am a Pirate King!

3 stars

A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead - Ngaio Marsh; Jove 1980

A Man Lay Dead – Ngaio Marsh; Jove 1980

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.

3 stars