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