The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh

Originally published in 1935
Inspector Alleyn #3
Preceded by Enter a Murderer
Followed by Death in Ecstasy

For Member of Parliament Sir Derek O’Callaghan, a simple visit to the hospital proves fatal. But as Inspector Alleyn will discover, any number of people had reason to help the gentleman to his just reward, including a sour surgeon, a besotted nurse, a resentful wife, and a cabinet full of political rivals, in this classic of detection by the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master.

The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan, is gearing up for a battle in the Commons over a bill to curtail the activities of anarchist groups. There is some suggestion that this may make him a target for assassination and the Prime Minister tries to convince him to accept police protection but Sir Derek rejects it as inconvenient and unnecessary.

His troubles are not confined to work however as later that day he receives a letter from a lover who does not seem to accept that their relationship was meant to have no strings attached. And then there’s the state of his health as he seems to be suffering from a nasty case of peritonitis causing him frequent pain.

Sir Derek is at the dispatch box introducing his bill when he suddenly collapses. An ambulance is summoned and he is sent to a nursing home run by Sir John Phillips, a man he had a long-standing friendship with though the pair have privately fallen out over the matter of that letter as the woman works with him as a nurse. He tries to persuade Lady O’Callaghan to let someone else treat her husband but she insists and he reluctantly agrees. While the operation initially seems successful, Sir Derek soon takes a nasty turn and within a few hours he lies dead and before long Inspector Alleyn finds himself investigating a murder…

This is the third Ngaio Marsh novel I have read, having reviewed the two previous novels in this series. For those who haven’t read (or do not remember) my reviews of those two books, I was deeply unimpressed with A Man Lay Dead while I found Enter a Murderer to be, to my surprise, a thoroughly entertaining read. This book falls somewhere between those two.

Let’s start with the positive though which, for me, is a setting that is presented with a strong attention to detail. The nursing home, its operating theater and staff struck me as very convincingly presented, giving the impression of a real working environment with tensions between colleagues who know each other well and some occasional peculiarities of practice during the procedures themselves.

Marsh does a fine job in laying out the movements of the various people involved in the operation. This is crucial because this investigation hinges as much on the question of when and how the fatal dose of a poison was administered as the question of who did the deed and why. As with Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger, attention is paid to each person in the operating room who are presented as comprising a closed circle of suspects (though it is looser – there are a couple of people outside the room who also factor into the investigation).

Some of the book’s most gripping passages take place during the operation and later, during a reconstruction of events. Part of what makes it so absorbing is the knowledge that something is almost certain to happen during that operation, prompting me to want to look all the more closely to see if I could detect a moment of opportunity or the moment at which Sir Derek would be killed.

The question of how does, admittedly, become a little logistical in nature with the reader being tasked with absorbing information about different injections and drug preparations. I felt however that Marsh makes those passages as simple as possible and explores some different possibilities clearly enough to help less medically-minded readers to follow.

Another aspect of this novel that I was struck by was its portrayal of the victim, Sir Derek. We get to know him over the course of a little over a dozen pages and I was rather surprised by how candid this book was in its discussion of his affairs. I felt I quickly got a strong measure of his personality and character in those couple of chapters which helped me better understand why some characters had such strong feelings, positive and negative, about him once the murder investigation begins.

Finally, I also really enjoyed my time with Alleyn. I remarked last time I read one of these that I finally had got to grips with him, appreciating his rather sharp and sarcastic tongue and there is plenty more evidence of that here. One favorite exchange comes with Nigel Bathgate when he passes a comment on what his friendship with one of the suspects is likely to be indicative of.

The other aspect of Alleyn’s use here that I think works particularly well is the depiction of how he slides between two different worlds, reflecting his aristocratic and professional backgrounds. This is particularly evident in his interactions with Lady O’Callaghan and, given it is the character’s background, it is nice to see it featuring more strongly here than in either of its predecessors.

The biggest problem I have with the book is that I feel Marsh sometimes paints her characters with some pretty broad strokes, making them seem quite cartoonish. Here that would be the group of anarchists and communist sympathizers whose dialog struck me as rather overblown or exaggerated. There is one chapter in particular which features an attempt to infiltrate a political meeting that struck me as quite hard to take seriously (Marsh arguably doesn’t, taking the opportunity to inject some comedic moments into those scenes).

The other issue relates to a matter of motive. A quick scan of some Goodreads reviews suggests there is a bit of a split between those who appreciate this and those who feel it is really weak. I was not surprised when the motive is revealed which I think points to it being properly clued but nor was I particularly satisfied by it. I should note that is not because Marsh handles this idea particularly badly but rather I usually have a problem with this sort of motive being employed in detective stories.

I should stress though that while I have some issues with some aspects of how this story is developed, I did find it to be a largely enjoyable read. Marsh may not be winning points for realism in some of her character work but it is nonetheless thoroughly readable. I think that phrase sums up the book pretty well overall – it isn’t the most challenging puzzle, in part because the villain’s behavior is relatively easy to detect, but the medical aspects of the scenario added interest and there are some enjoyable false leads to follow.

The Verdict: Loved the hospital operation scenario but expect some bold characterizations and aspects of the ending struck me as underwhelming.

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

Originally published in 1935
Inspector Alleyn #2
Preceded by A Man Lay Dead
Followed by The Nursing Home Murder

The Blurb

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.

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