Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh

An unusual setting for a 1936 detective novel with a closed circle of suspects

Death in Ecstasy is available as part of a Ngaio Marsh collection
Death in Ecstasy is available as
part of a Ngaio Marsh collection
When bored journalist Nigel Bathgate attends a meeting of a dubious spiritual cult just out of curiosity, he gets more entertainment than he bargained for. As he watches a group of people at the altar pass round a silver flagon of wine, he sees one of them drink from a jewelled cup and then immediately fall dead to the floor.

At first the other initiates think the young female victim is experiencing ecstasy, but then one of them notices her clenched teeth and ‘lips drawn back in a rigid circle’ and makes the others aware that she is dead. Nigel keeps his nerve amid the panic and asks to use the telephone to ring his close friend, Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard.

Alleyn and Bathgate soon discover that the victim, Cara Quayne, a beautiful and wealthy young woman, was a deeply religious initiate who had been training for a month for the bizarre ceremony of becoming the Chosen Vessel at the House of the Sacred Flame.

Nigel’s suspicions had been aroused by the distinctive smell coming from the victim, who had died immediately after drinking the ritual wine. He and Alleyn quickly discover that the wine had been poisoned with cyanide.

As Bathgate was present when the death occurred, Alleyn allows the journalist full access to the investigation, allowing him to take notes while he questions the witnesses. He also encourages Bathgate, who in many of the novels serves as Alleyn’s ‘Watson’, to befriend  a young couple who were present at the altar when the murder took place.  This would of course not happen in real life, or modern detective novels, but I think the author can get away with it because the story was written more than 80 years ago.

The actor Geoffrey Keen played Marsh's detective Roderick Alleyn in TV adaptation
The actor Geoffrey Keen played Marsh's
detective Roderick Alleyn in TV adaptation
Alleyn takes the names of all the people who were with Cara at the altar. They are all suspects because any of them could have added the cyanide to the wine as they passed the flagon round. And at the top of the list is Father Jasper Garnette, the officiating priest.

This fourth Detective Chief Inspector Alleyn mystery by Ngaio Marsh, published in 1936, is a departure from the country house mystery that was so fashionable at the time. But it has a limited circle of suspects, as they are all middle-class people living in flats and houses in an upmarket area of London, who pay calls on each other and dine with each other.

Alleyn and Bathgate uncover the usual motives for murder, such as lust, jealousy, greed for money and unrequited love. They come across a significant clue when they find a book hidden in Father Garnette’s bookcase that falls open at a page with a recipe for home made cyanide. Ngaio is very clever with this clue, which keeps the identity of the murderer hidden until the end, and she provides enough twists along the way to distract the reader.

I would recommend Death in Ecstasy because it is a well written, satisfying puzzle that reveals more about the character of Ngaio’s series detective, Roderick Alleyn. 

Death in Ecstasy was adapted for television in 1964 with Geoffrey Keen in the Alleyn role, Keith Barron as Bathgate, Joss Ackland as Jasper Garnette and Nigel Hawthorne as a temple doorkeeper. 

One of three novels featured in Book Two of a Ngaio Marsh Collection published by Harper Collins, it is available from or




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