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.