A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

Originally Published 1934
Inspector Alleyn #1
Followed by Enter A Murderer

This classic from the Golden Age of British mystery opens during a country-house party between the two world wars—servants bustling, gin flowing, the gentlemen in dinner jackets, the ladies all slink and smolder. Even more delicious: The host, Sir Hubert Handesley, has invented a new and especially exciting version of that beloved parlor entertainment, The Murder Game . . .

A Man Lay Dead is the first mystery novel written by Ngaio Marsh, a woman usually identified as one of the four Queens of Crime. It introduces her series detective, Inspector Alleyn, though he is not the central character – that would be Nigel Bathgate, a gossip columnist.

Nigel has received an invitation to attend a weekend house party at the country estate of Sir Hubert Handesley. We learn that at each of his parties he devises some new game to amuse and delight his guests and that this time the game played will be murders.

Being a Golden Age crime novel we know that this will turn out to be a pretty disastrous choice…

The way the game is intended to work is that Sir Hubert’s butler will select a guest to be the murderer and discretely inform them of it. Then at some point in the evening the murderer must tell someone else that they are dead then go into the hall where they should strike the gong and turn out the lights to the house. Two minutes later the lights will be turned on again and a trial will commence.

During the evening the gong does sound but when the lights come back up the guests are astonished to discover a real body. The victim is Charles Rankin, one of the guests. He is found stabbed through the heart with a Russian knife that he had brought to show off to Sir Hubert and which is identified as a ceremonial piece belonging to a Russian secret society.

The most logical place to begin any discussion of a murder mystery is with the plot and its mechanics but I cannot say that I found these particularly effective here. A large part of the problem with this comes down to the question of a motive for the killing as, in my opinion, these are pretty thin on the ground. Certainly there are several members of the party who might have reasons to want to harm Rankin but most of those motives feel pretty flimsy.

The idea of how it is done is more interesting but here, yet again, we encounter a problem. This crime is an opportunistic one and yet at the point at which the murderer embarks on their plan they can have no guarantee that their plan is remotely workable and their course of action exposes them to enormous risk of discovery. This is, of course, hardly unique to this particular novel – there are lots of Golden Age crime novels that feature unlikely murders – but I think it is stretched far beyond credibility here. Judged purely as a puzzle, while I think Marsh plays fair with us I just don’t think it really works.

Now, all that being said – I found this a very enjoyable read.

Marsh writes her story with a light, comical touch that makes it clear that we are not supposed to take Inspector Alleyn particularly seriously. There are no attempts to ground this character in procedure but as he seems to breeze and engage in light banter through the case, occasionally sounding quite flippant in his questioning. Whether it is declaring that his is a ‘lucky boy’ because he has been handed a murder or trying to coax testimony from a sullen child witness with the promise of sweets and coins, I found him entertaining company.

Similarly there are some rather silly moments in the plot that I think we are also supposed to take as pastiche or parody rather than as part of a serious mystery plot though it is hard to know for sure. For instance there is a particularly lengthy subplot relating to the murder weapon that I presume we are meant to see as a play on other secret society plots in mystery novels. It goes on a bit too long but I think it can make for pretty entertaining reading.

Bathgate is a pretty charming central character but I am not entirely sure what his role here is meant to be or why Marsh thought she needed him. Perhaps she thought that Alleyn needed a Hastings-style figure and yet he doesn’t really fulfil that role as he doesn’t hold Alleyn’s confidences (though he can at least quickly dismiss him from suspicion thanks to a servant’s testimony allowing Marsh a rare moment of social commentary as she reflects on the aristocracy’s inability to take note of those they consider beneath them).

Which is about all I have to say about it. This is a work that feels light, amusing but rather insubstantial. I liked Alleyn but don’t feel that I really know who he is and certainly was not left with a burning desire to rush off and read the other thirty-two titles in this series.

At the same time, I suspect this is not really reminiscent of those other stories and so it is perhaps unfair to judge them off the back of this one. From what I gather Alleyn plays a much more central role in those other stories and I would at least be a little curious to see how he would fare as a protagonist and to get a better sense of why some people rate Marsh so highly.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Read by another challenger (Why) – My Reader’s Block

10 thoughts on “A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

  1. Alleyn is a fairly bland/colourless character throughout the series, though I may get shot down by Marsh fans for saying that! For me at any rate he never really comes to life. As to pastiche/parody I don’t think Marsh was trying to do this in her first novel. She just over filled a plot a bit and I don’t think liked the title of this one. Surfeit of Lampreys is a marmite book in the canon, which people either love or hate. It is one of my preferred Marsh read, along with Scales of Justice. I’ll be interested to see how you fare with others by her, though I would stay away from Spinsters in Jeopardy. Easily her worst book in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The plotting of her first book doesn’t tend to get replicated in her later ones, though she isn’t very good at writing interesting investigations. I think she always starts well, but her investigations can get bogged down with interviews.


  2. I’ve read quite a few of Marsh’s novels (far from all!) and I’d say this is easily the weakest of them. Whatever Kate might say (sorry, Kate!), I too felt there was a fair measure of parody in the mix — in fact, Marsh comes close to saying as much when she describes how she came to write the novel in an essay whose title I have of course forgotten. Essentially, as a young woman living in London, she was broke and alone and the only entertainment she could afford were paperback mysteries from the newsagent on the corner. After a while she thought that the writers of paperback mysteries must be rolling in the big bucks — besides, writing was an even cheaper form of entertainment than reading. (I guess this must have predated free public libraries.) I got the strong impression she wrote the book for fun, her hopes for publication being much like one’s hopes for winning the lottery — you know it’ll never happen, but it’s fun to pretend it might.

    The ludicrous mechanism of the murder seems to me to be part of the near-parody she was engaging in. She’d have seen how far-fetched some of the murders were in the GAD novels she read, so naturally she thought she’d outdo them.

    Although I thought Alleyn was a bit of a prat in this one, he does develop as a character in subsequent novels. If you want a goodie to try next you might opt for Artists in Crime, where he meets the strong-minded, independent, free-thinking woman who’ll be the love of his life.

    Unlike Kate, I thoroughly enjoyed Spinsters in Jeopardy — it’s not a mystery but an adventure romp — but like her I enjoyed Surfeit of Lampreys.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the recommendations! It is a relief to find I am not alone in thinking that Marsh was being playful as I would like to think her plotting choices are deliberate. I certainly got the feeling that she was amusing herself with some sequences and that trumped consistency in Alleyn’s character.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve read somewhere between 6 and 10 novels by Marsh and I have no doubt whatsoever that this the worst, by a very long chalk indeed.
    I guess Alleyn isn’t the most dynamic character but I can live with that and and I can accept the sometimes formulaic approach to investigation. What really got up my nose with this though, and here I have to shift away from John’s position, is the revelation of the murder plan and method. For me, this booted parody aside, completely steamrollered its way through outrageous and just left me disgusted to the point I wanted to fling the book across the room – I found the bare-faced gall of anyone presenting such a nest of horse feathers for consideration utterly appalling. If that had been my first taste of the author’s work, I don’t think I’d have read another.
    However, she did far better things – Artists in Crime, Colour Scheme and Scales of Justice all worked for me.


    1. I can absolutely understand holding that position and can’t really disagree with your feelings about the resolution. I enjoyed the process of reading it but I do think the mystery is poorly constructed.

      I do appreciate those title recommendations. I’d like to get a sense of Marsh at her best and will aim to try one of those next to give her a fair shake.

      Liked by 1 person

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