Ngaio Marsh (pronounced “NYE-oh”) is one of my favorite mystery authors; and she’s striking because she’s so quietly different than her contemporaries from the 1930’s. Her sleuth, Chief-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of New Scotland Yard, is a gentleman like Lord Peter Wimsey; but he’s neither as whimsical nor as damaged as Lord Peter (we gather that Alleyn had some formative experiences in the Great War that led him to leave the Foreign Office for the CID, but they don’t come into the foreground), and general goofiness of the sort we find in P.G. Wodehouse or Leslie Charteris simply doesn’t appear. Marsh’s first novel is a cozy of the sort Agatha Christie began to write ten years prior; but though there’s a puzzle the novel isn’t only about the puzzle.
I’ve read Marsh’s oeuvre through twice before; and when I began it this time the primary question in my mind was, “What is it about these books that I like? I remember enjoying them greatly, but I don’t remember why.” There’s no flash, there’s no goofiness, there are few laugh-out-loud moments; they are simply quietly enjoyable. What is it that makes them so? More on that in a bit.
A May Lay Dead, first printed in 1934, is your basic country house murder. A young journalist named Nigel Bathgate is invited to a famous country house for a long weekend. The master of the house collects curious weapons, and one of the collection is used to commit murder. There’s the usual full house of suspects, including a slightly sinister Russian; there’s all kinds of naughty behavior going on, throwing red herrings left and right across the corridors and staircases; and there’s Chief-Inspector Roderick Alleyn who comes in to make sense of it all. Bathgate is our viewpoint character, and being fairly quickly cleared immediately begins to assist Alleyn with his investigations. We get young love and interesting characters, and a bit of international intrigue, but the puzzle is fairly primary.
Competently written? Certainly. Entertaining? Sure. Special? Not yet. Not quite yet. But there are thirty-one more books to come.
photo credit: public domain