Originally published in 1935
Inspector Alleyn #2
Preceded by A Man Lay Dead
Followed by The Nursing Home Murder
Inspector Roderick Alleyn has been invited to an opening night, a new play in which two characters quarrel and then struggle for a gun, with predictably sad results. Even sadder, the gun was not, in fact, loaded with blanks. And when it comes to interviewing witnesses, actors can be a deceptive lot . . .
It has taken me quite a while to get around to reading Enter A Murderer, perhaps reflecting that I had been left somewhat cold by its predecessor and felt in no rush to get back to Alleyn. I suggested in that post one of my biggest problems with the book was that I felt I simply didn’t connect with Marsh’s detective, feeling that I never really got to know him. This second installment doesn’t exactly flesh him out in terms of supplying details of his life or backstory, nor does it make him much more heroic or likable. Still, I felt that I finally had a much better grasp on what Marsh was trying to do with the character by the end of this novel and I am happy to report that I found this a much more satisfying experience as a result.
At least part of the reason for that shift lies in my choice to listen to this, at least in part, as an audiobook. While I didn’t listen to the whole book that way, I appreciated the excellent reading given by James Saxon. Suddenly being able to hear his voice as Alleyn helped me catch the sarcasm and sardonic inflection laced into much of his dialogue, bringing it to life for me and giving me a much better understanding of his character. It probably doesn’t hurt either that I think the case itself offers a significant improvement on Alleyn’s previous one.
Arthur Surbonadier is the nephew of Jacob Saint, a former actor who had transitioned into theatrical management and now presides over the Unicorn theater. In spite of their family bonds however the pair enjoy a frosty relationship that has recently taken a turn for the worse when Arthur has discovered that he has been passed over for the hero part in The Rat and the Beaver in favor of his rival Felix Gardener. Tensions between Arthur and Felix are particularly high as the pair are vying for the hand of the company’s leading lady, the beautiful Stephanie Vaughan and so when he meets his uncle, Arthur decides to play at blackmail in the hope of changing the bill.
Inspector Alleyn happens to be in the audience for a performance of the play as a guest of his friend Nigel Bathgate and he gets a glimpse of some of the tensions within the company for himself when the pair visit Gardener backstage before the show. Things take a turn late in the production however during a scene in which Gardener and Surbonadier tussle with a gun as the firearm discharges a real bullet, killing Gardener. While the audience marvel at the realism of the performance as the curtain comes down, Alleyn is already heading backstage. He has recognized that Surbonadier’s death scene was no performance…
Though the earliest moments of Enter a Murderer feel soaked in melodrama, there is something quite intriguing about the way the book opens with the blackmail demands. Marsh keeps it brief, using it to establish one of the points of personal tension (and hinting at another), neatly positioning the reader to expect further developments.
Marsh suggests a state of building tension and foreboding throughout the performance as we may come to anticipate the murder based on the atmosphere backstage. That moment, when it comes, is handled quite strikingly and I couldn’t help but be pleased with the simple yet intriguing circumstances surrounding it. The idea of setting up a murder by proxy is a clever one made all the more so when you consider the events that precede it lead to the victim actually loading the gun themselves in full view of the audience. As problems go, this seemed like a pretty good place to start.
While I had been a little concerned that the opening to the novel seemed to push a single suspect, it soon becomes apparent that there are several other characters with reason to kill Surbonadier. The challenge here then is to learn what exactly those motives might be. The actual solution, while not especially surprising, shows cunning and explained very clearly.
Marsh seems to have a pretty good handle on the theatrical types she fills her story with, making them colorful and dramatic enough in their interactions to amuse without stretching into parody. Though the cast of characters is relatively small, most seem to be used very thoughtfully in terms of their roles within the story.
What will stay with me most though is the feeling that as I follow Alleyn and Bathgate, the case brought out aspects of each’s characters. One favorite moment for me came in Chapter 9 when Alleyn has a conversation with Stephanie Vaughan about how he feels about his suspects, drawing an intriguing parallel with jigsaw puzzles.
There are, of course, a couple aspects of the story that don’t entirely work for me. One of these is that Nigel Bathgate is often incredibly dense, completely ignoring some strong evidence because it doesn’t fit with his worldview. A good example relates to his chivalrous belief in Vaughan’s absolute innocence and ignoring any evidence that does not fit that opinion.
The other is that the dialogue does occasionally become quite stylized and overblown. This is one of those things I can forgive well enough but it is appreciated to have options.
Overall, I was delighted to find that I enjoyed this one far more than the previous one, liking the characters and the scenario all the better.
The Verdict: An entertaining theatrical mystery feels like a significant improvement from Alleyn’s first outing, even if the case itself seems rather slim.
7 thoughts on “Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh”
It’s arguable that Marsh does her best work when the theatre is involved (I’d cite Vintage Murder and Overture to Death as examples of this).
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That’s interesting. She certainly seems to have a good read on the theater as a physical space and theatrical types – more so than some others who used it as a setting. The dialogue may be a little stylized but I believe in the Unicorn as a space which helps sell this.
The hook to this one is great as is the way the killer is caught. If you’re reading them in order, I found next one, The Nursing Home Murder, to be my favourite from the first 6 or 7 that I’ve read. It does something that I’ve not seen before in GAD, if anywhere.
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Now that is quite the hook you have provided for the next one. I will try not to take two more years to get around to reading it!
So happy to see a positive review of Marsh. She is one of my favorites and I have recently begun trying to acquire as many of the new reprint paperbacks as I can. Like Christie, Marsh is someone whose entire bibliography I would love to own. I agree that she works best in the theatrical setting, a world she knew intimately. I recently finished Overture to Death which was set in the world of amateur theatrics and the picture-perfect representation of her characters had me laughing out loud. Right to the end – her last novel Light Thickens, is I think, an overlooked gem – Marsh scintillated when describing the theatre. Enter a Murderer is not one I have read yet, but your positive review has me excited to add it to the collection.
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I will have to keep that in mind for the future. I expect I will do the next one given John’s high praise for it but afterwards I may break from doing them in order and cherry pick the ones that appeal most. Thanks for the recommendation of Overture!
Hope you enjoy Enter a Murderer whenever you get to it.