Written in 1935, this was the second book for Ngaio Marsh, theater director and eventually one of the ‘greats’ in crime fiction writers. To write it, she drew upon her knowledge of theater and the many types that surround the performing arts. Her knowledge of setting and characters is evident, and I can’t say that I thought any of it felt unrealistic or poorly done.
It opens with an unpleasant scene between producer Joseph Saint (born Simes) and his nephew, Arthur Surbonadier (also born Simes), followed by an equally unpleasant scene with Surbonadier and leading lady Stephanie Vaughan. It primes the reader for the confrontation, and gives initial insight into further interactions of the three. The story continues with Nigel Bathgate, journalist, inviting his friend Detective Inspector Alleyn to a night at the theater and a chance to meet the crew before the show. It’s a fabulous set-up, allowing the reader a bit of insight Alleyn doesn’t know yet, but also priming the tension for what is to come. So many potential targets for so many reasons. The two men take their seats and production of The Rat and the Beaver.
I’m probably a gullible reader, because I was as surprised with the murder as the audience, expecting someone else to be a better candidate. Detective Alleyn gets to work, with the faithful yet equally gullible Nigel as his note-taking sidekick. The theater is examined, the company patted down, alibis checked. A significant portion of the story takes place within the theater, and this part works well. If the characters seem a bit daffy, it’s only because they are acting types, professionally inclined to perform:
“The players walked through the wings and stood quietly in a semi-circle. They looked attentive and businesslike. It was almost as though they had needed the stage and the lights to give them full solidity. They no longer seemed preposterous or even artificial. They were in their right environment and had become real.”
I enjoyed the writing style. I noted the occasional interesting vocabulary word and but didn’t take the time to write any of them down. ‘Het up’ sticks out in my mind, as I believe the savoir and polished Alleyn used it (settle down: I’ve since looked it up and discovered it’s Scottish origins in the mid-19th c.), but it was interesting, as at least one reviewer was bothered by it. I’m not a period reader, so I couldn’t say what’s appropriate or not, but the colloquialisms seemed less ‘proper’ than expected. Still, Marsh is great at setting a scene and creating a mood.
Characters were fun, with Marsh generally stressing the larger-than-life theater type personality. Alleyn still struggles a bit, and I find my 2o18 enculturation stressed by the concept of detection mid-century. Most of it I could likely have forgiven had I been able to understand Alleyn’s personality. I think Marsh was going for a sort of Cary Grant daffy charm crossed with a know-all copper, but it didn’t work. It just felt too inconsistent to have him seriously questioning a witness, telling Bathgate he must leave, allowing him to stay, challenging Bathgate’s incorrect assumptions, and merrily baiting Fox.
Too bad about the plot, though. She keeps suspense going until the very end (literally the last six pages of my book), and perhaps that explains why I found it only mildly satisfying. The beauty of good Christie is that when the hand is shown, I say, ‘oh yes, of course; that makes sense.’ When the denouement occurs, I thought, ‘what?’ and read the motive paragraph again, whereupon I was left with a different but equally unsatisfied feeling. It also failed to explain some of the red herrings and equally odd behavior by another character.
Still, up until that last bit, I enjoyed it. The first part of the book was quite riveting, so I’ll try to focus on that instead of the unsatisfying end. I’ll certainly continue to the next.