Monday, March 22, 2021

Enter a Murderer

Complimentary theatre ticket gives Inspector Alleyn a front row seat for murder

Patrick Malahide played Alleyn on TV in the 1990s
Patrick Malahide played
Alleyn on TV in the 1990s
Ngaio Marsh draws on her experience as a theatre director in New Zealand to describe the background of her second Inspector Roderick Alleyn novel published in 1935.

In Enter a Murderer, she places Inspector Alleyn near the front of the audience at a London theatre when one of the actors is shot dead on the stage.

A character in the play is meant to be shot with a gun loaded with dummy cartridges, but when he falls down and the horrified cast realise he is dead for real, the gentleman detective, Alleyn, suspects foul play immediately.

He had been invited to the theatre by his friend, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, who he met when investigating the death of a guest at a country house party in the first novel, A Man Lay Dead.

Nigel has been given complimentary tickets for the play by his old University friend, Felix Gardener, who is playing the male lead in the production.

Alleyn and Bathgate visit Felix in his dressing room before the play starts and are actually introduced to Arthur Surbonadier, the actor who is going to be the murder victim. He is clearly the worse for wear because he has been drinking and demonstrates that he is jealous of Felix because of his blossoming relationship with Stephanie, who is playing the female lead.

Alleyn and Bathgate leave to take their seats front of house because they feel uncomfortable in the acrimonious atmosphere of the dressing room.

After Arthur has been shot and it becomes clear that he really is dead, the production is halted and the audience sent home.

You can read Ngaio Marsh's first three Alleyn novels in one volume
You can read Ngaio Marsh's first
three Alleyn novels in one volume
Helped by his team who arrive from Scotland Yard, Alleyn secures the forensic evidence and interview all the members of the cast.

At this point I was surprised by Alleyn’s demeanour as he makes jokes for the benefit of Bathgate and his fellow officers, which hardly seemed appropriate, but then I thought of Dorothy L Sayers and her sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Margery Allingham and her investigator, Albert Campion, and I realised this clowning around was the fashion at the time and perhaps a nudge to the reader not to take the story too seriously.

I was also surprised Alleyn allows Bathgate to play an active part in the case and sit in on the interviews and take notes.

Bathgate is involved in the investigation in Ngaio’s first novel, A Man Lay Dead, but that was because he was actually staying in the house where the murder investigation takes place and couldn’t be sent away.

But then I realised Bathgate is kept around in Enter a Murderer to be the Watson for Alleyn. He gets to know some of what the detective is thinking but not all of it and, like the reader, he has no idea what to expect at the end.

I was slightly disappointed at the denouement when Alleyn uses the same trick as in the first novel, A Man Lay Dead, and holds a re-enactment of the murder. This time he has all the actors taking part, which eventually leads the murderer to incriminate himself.

But Enter a Murderer certainly fulfils what the reader expects from a detective novel as it is an interesting story with a surprise at the end. Ngaio describes life backstage at a theatre very well, drawing on her own experiences of acting and directing

Ngaio Marsh
Ngaio Marsh
Her great passion was the theatre and she joined a touring company in New Zealand as an actress in 1916. Later in life, she directed several of Shakespeare’s plays for New Zealand audiences and lived long enough to see the theatre firmly established in her own country and provided with proper financial support.

The University of Canterbury in New Zealand named their theatre the Ngaio Marsh Theatre and she was made a Dame in the 1966 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to the arts.

The title, Enter a Murderer, is taken from a line of stage direction from Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh is available as a hardback, paperback, Kindle or Audiobook. I read it as part of an omnibus edition comprising A Man Lay Dead, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder - the first three Roderick Alleyn mysteries.

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1 comment:

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