Overture to Death by Ngaio Marsh

The story of a theatrical entertainment that starts with a bang

Ngaio Marsh was one of the four 'Queens of Crime' in detective fiction's Golden Age
Ngaio Marsh was one of the four 'Queens
of Crime' in detective fiction's Golden Age
Two ageing spinsters, who are both vying for the attentions of the rector of their church, are united in just one thing: their hatred for Selia Ross, an attractive newcomer to the village who they think is having an affair with the local doctor.

In Overture to Death, when the main characters get together at a meeting at the village Squire’s house to plan an amateur theatre production to raise money for a new church piano, it becomes obvious to the reader that the story can end in only one way…

In this eighth Chief Inspector Alleyn novel, Ngaio Marsh draws on her own theatrical background when she describes the preparations the organisers make for the performance of a play in the Parish Hall in the vale of Pen Cuckoo in Dorset.

She sets the stage cleverly, giving examples of the extent of the rivalry between the two old women in the past and how far they are prepared to go to get the rector’s attention.

Her characterisation of the spinsters is excellent as she reveals how both women disapprove of the blossoming relationship between the Squire’s son, Henry, and the rector’s daughter, Dinah, who is a young professional actress.

The artist, Agatha Troy, does not appear in this novel, published in 1939, but she is always present in the background.  

After the explosive murder scene, Detective Chief Inspector Alleyn and Detective Inspector Fox are sent by Scotland Yard to investigate.

Ngaio includes a letter Alleyn writes to Troy, while he is away from London working on the case, in which he reveals that they are engaged and speculates on what their marriage will be like.

The HarperCollins 2001 edition
of the 8th Inspector Alleyn mystery
Alleyn’s original Watson, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, is sent to Dorset to cover the murder story and he assists Alleyn in the investigation.

Ngaio Marsh, who died on 18 February 1982 in her native New Zealand, contributed to both art and the theatre during her life. She was also judged to be one of the four Queens of Crime during the Golden Age of detective fiction.

Her 32nd and final crime novel, Light Thickens, was completed only a few weeks before her death. The story revolves around one of her greatest theatrical passions, Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth.

Ngaio began writing detective novels in 1931 after moving to London to start up an interior decorating business. The idea for her first crime novel, A Man Lay Dead, came to her when she was living in a basement flat off Sloane Square.

In the preface to an omnibus edition of her first three novels - A Man Lay Dead, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder - Ngaio describes how she came up with the character of Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

It was a wet Saturday afternoon and she had been reading a detective story borrowed from a library, although she says she couldn’t remember whether it was ‘a Christie or a Sayers.’ After she finished it, she wondered whether she could write something similar and braved the rain to go to a stationer’s shop to buy exercise books, a pencil, and a pencil sharpener.

She sat down to write what was to be the first of a series of crime novels featuring the gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn. Her fictional detective works for the Metropolitan Police in London even though he is the younger brother of a baronet. She named him after an Elizabethan actor, Edward Alleyn.

Several of her novels are set in the world of the theatre, which she knew well because she was a times an actress, director, and playwright. Along with Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh was to dominate the genre of crime fiction for the next 50 years.

I would recommend Overture to Death as a good example of a classic Golden Age mystery set in a respectable English village. It stands out because of its clever plot, which involves a highly ingenious and shocking murder method.

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Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers

Background romance adds extra interest to investigation

The 2016 Hodder edition of the novel, first published in 1932
The 2016 Hodder edition of the
novel, first published in 1932
Lord Peter Wimsey’s character comes to life in Have His Carcase, the seventh novel by Dorothy L Sayers to feature her gentleman sleuth.

Instead of appearing as just an amiable aristocrat indulging himself with his detecting hobby, tolerated by Scotland Yard because of his status in society, he shows himself to be energetic and determined during this novel, which was first published in 1932, because he is trying to help the woman he loves.

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane is on a solitary walking tour along the south west coast of England when she discovers a dead body on the beach.

She has stopped for refreshment and a brief doze in the afternoon sun. But instead of just enjoying a peaceful picnic and then resuming her journey, she wakes up to find a corpse nearby. A man, who has had his throat slashed from ear to ear, lies spreadeagled on the rocks below her.

Harriet tries to gather evidence at the scene before the incoming tide sweeps the body out to sea. Then she finds she has to walk several miles before she can find a telephone to report her discovery to the police.

As a woman who has recently been acquitted of murder, a case featured in Strong Poison, a previous Wimsey novel, Harriet finds it unpleasant to come under suspicion and be the subject of police scrutiny again.

Ian Carmichael as Wimsey in a 1970s TV adaptation
Ian Carmichael as Wimsey
in a 1970s TV adaptation

But she does not have to wait long before Wimsey joins her at the seaside and involves himself in the investigation, having been tipped off by a journalist about Harriet’s predicament.

The amateur detective duo discover that it is a complicated case to solve and it involves them, and Bunter, Wimsey’s manservant, in painstaking work to try to break the alibis of their main suspects.

They also have to crack a secret code used by the murderer to communicate with his victim beforehand. This was the only part of the novel that I found less than riveting, as the codebreaking lasted for several pages that weren’t very interesting to read.

However, Wimsey’s character acquires more depth in this novel, and the ‘will they, won’t they?’ sub plot of their romance also adds interest to the story.

The couple part as friends at the end of the book, but Harriet has still not accepted Wimsey’s proposal of marriage, providing a major incentive for fans to keep reading!

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Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

No Oxford degree for author but she found a good setting for a crime novel

The murder at the heart of this mystery occurs on the River Cherwell, stick popular with students today
The murder at the heart of this mystery occurs on the
River Cherwell, still popular with students today
Death on the Cherwell, a classic Golden Age detective story by Mavis Doriel Hay published in 1935, is set in a fictitious women’s college in Oxford. The novel appeared during the same year as Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers, which was also set in a women’s college in Oxford. Both settings were loosely based on the colleges the authors had attended themselves.

Mavis writes at the beginning of the first chapter: ‘Undergraduates, especially those in their first year, are not, of course, quite sane or quite adult.’ The students featured in this novel come across as very young indeed, more like the girls in boarding school stories than intelligent students. Nevertheless, they make good amateur sleuths, who are as entertaining as they are industrious.

A group of first year girls, who have formed a secret society that meets on the roof of the Persephone College boathouse, come across the dead body of the college bursar lying in her canoe. She is later discovered to have drowned in the river but it is a mystery how her body ended up back in her own boat.

The police are called in but to begin with they assume it is a student prank that has got out of hand. However, the group of young ladies who found the body immediately suspect foul play and take the investigation into their own hands. 

Led by Sally Watson, whose older sister, Beryl, appeared in Murder Underground, the first crime novel by Mavis Doriel Hay, the undergraduates uncover the tangled secrets that led to the bursar’s death and follow up clues that point in the direction of a fellow student.

The British Library Crime Classics edition of Death on the Cherwell
The British Library Crime Classics
edition of Death on the Cherwell
Mavis Doriel Hay, who was born on either 12 or 13 February 1894, 130 years ago, in Potters Bar in Middlesex, attended St Hilda’s College in Oxford between 1913 and 1916. She published three mystery novels within just three years in the 1930s, Murder Underground, Death on the Cherwell, and the Santa Klaus Murder. 

After Murder Underground was published, Dorothy L Sayers wrote a review in the Sunday Times saying: ‘This detective novel is much more than interesting. The numerous characters are well differentiated, and include one of the most feckless, exasperating, and lifelike literary men that ever confused a trail.’

That exasperating literary man, Basil Pongleton makes an appearance in the author’s second novel, Death on the Cherwell, when he and his wife, Beryl, are visiting Beryl’s sister, Sally, in Oxford. But Sally doesn’t need any help from him to uncover the truth about the bursar’s death and her sleuthing efforts even earn her the respect of the investigating officer in the case, Detective Inspector Braydon.

Like Dorothy L Sayers, Mavis attended Oxford when women were allowed into the university to study, but were not allowed to graduate, and so she left the university empty handed. But because she was interested in the industries and handicrafts of rural Britain, she was later sponsored by the Agricultural Economics Research Institute of Oxford University to collaborate with another writer, Helen Fitzrandolph, on a series of works surveying rural industries

She went on to marry Helen Fitzrandolph’s brother, Archibald Menzies Fitzrandolph, in 1929. Sadly, he was killed in a flying accident during World War II. 

Mavis, who was also interested in quilting, went on to publish several books on crafts during her life. She died in 1979 at the age of 85.

Nearly 90 years after it was first published, Death on the Cherwell was republished by British Library Crime Classics. In his introduction to the novel in 2014, crime writer Stephen Booth regrets that Mavis Doriel Hay had such a short literary career and published just three detective novels. He says it is ‘even sadder’ that she was almost forgotten by crime fiction readers for so many years after her death and he was delighted that the British Library editions of her books were finally remedying that oversight.

I am sure lovers of classic crime novels will be glad to have the opportunity to get to know this author and will be fascinated by her portrayal of life inside a women’s college in Oxford, in the days when female students weren’t even considered worthy of being awarded degrees by the university they attended. 

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(River Cherwell pic by Steve Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)