14 November 2008

Review: A MAN LAY DEAD, Ngaio Marsh

Isis Publishing large print edition, 2005. First published 1934. ISBN 0-7531-7409-X 211 pages

This is Ngaio Marsh's debut novel, a classic country house party murder mystery, where the reader is tempted to map the location of all of the characters at the location of the murder. Nigel Bathgate, with his cousin Charles Rankin, is attending his first houseparty at Frampton. He has heard these houseparties hosted by Sir Hubert Handesley are both "original" and unpretentious. There will seven or eight guests, and, upon arrival, he learns that the main event will be a Murder. Sir Hubert has his own rules for the Murder Game, and eventually a murder there is, but not the theatrically staged one they have anticipated.

This is not Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn's first murder case, although it is Ngaio Marsh's first novel. Alleyn is already a seasoned detective, with a reputation for thorough and careful sleuthing. His reputation preceds him. He arrives at Frampton from Scotland Yard the morning after the murder. The body has already been moved, and the local constabulary and the police doctor are already in attendance.

In essence what Marsh does in this first novel is establish some of the characteristics which will become Alleyn's "signature" in subsequent novels. Alleyn does not appear as the other characters expect a detective to be. He is tall, cultured, detached, thorough, and objective. He professes to have a poor memory and keeps a small note book of important facts, with an alphabetical index. We learn that Alleyn is an Oxford man who initially became a diplomat, before turning to policing. He likes to inspect things first hand, and likes to reconstruct events until he gets them right. He may also lay traps for suspects. In A MAN LAY DEAD he decides one of the characters is innocent, and then uses him as his "Watson", not only involving him in some of the sleuthing, but also as a sounding board for his deductions. Thus we see the action often through two sets of eyes, both Alleyn's and the other characters.

This is an interesting novel as Marsh has included the element of "the Russian threat". First of all there is the Russian dagger with which the victim is stabbed, then the Russian butler who disappears, the house guest who is a Russian espionage agent, and then the Russian secret society that binds them all together. A MAN LAY DEAD was published in 1934 and is indicative of the fear of Russian communism that had had Europe in its thrall for the previous decade or so.

Ngaio Marsh is a New Zealander but this novel puts her right into the vein of the Golden Age writers like Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. It is a British cozy murder mystery through and through. In A MAN LAY DEAD she is exploring a classic scenario, and bringing a new sleuth onto the crime fiction scene. There is no hint of her Antipodean origins. The language, the slang, the setting are thoroughly British.

From a 21st century point of view A MAN LAY DEAD has survived 8 decades pretty well. We wouldn't put it at the top of the tree these days, because there are things that date it. Marsh was more concerned to write a carefully constructed whodunnit, and not so taken with "why". Nevertheless it is very readable.

My rating 4.3

See full list
My first link to Vanda Symon's Ngaio Marsh challenge


Scott D. Parker said...

As I mentioned over at David Cranmer's The Education of a Pulp Writer (who reviews Marsh's Death in Ecstasy), I have discovered a growing fondness for classic mysteries. I take it as no coincidence that two Marsh novels are reviewed today. Time to check out the library.

Vanda Symon said...

Great review Kerrie, and how funny that Scott mentions the Death in Ecstasy review. My Ngaio Marsh reading has been slightly thwarted by not being able to find a copy of Death in Ecstasy to read. I was starting to despair when I spotted a copy on Trade-Me this morning...

Thanks for the link to my challenge.

Elaine said...

I simply adore all of Ngaio Marsh's output and love her detective. As I write this I am working my way through an umpteenth reread of all of hte Alleyn mysteries and am currently have way into Spinsters in Jeopardy which I will finish tonight. I love her constant references to Shakespeare and art reflecting both her interests and talents, and Alleyn is just one of the most gorgeous detectives ever invented (but then there is Lord peter of course...)


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