A Man Lay Dead

Amazon tells me that “Ngaio Marsh was one of the queens (she has been called the empress) of England’s Golden Age of mystery fiction”, which is troubling, because I’d never heard of her. Not troubling for me, specifically; just when you think about fame and how fleeting it is, and how tied to your own time and place, etc.

Either way I’m glad I’ve discovered her. This is just the first book, but I’m not sure she lives up to the expectations engendered by Dorothy Sayers. Not in a detective sense; rather in a more literary sense. I’d describe her character portraits as somewhere in between Wodehouse and Sayers, with a sort of comic aspect that Sayers doesn’t necessarily have.

In any case Marsh’s main character is notable because he does belong to the official investigative body of England, unlike most other authors’ sleuths. Inspector Roderick Alleyn is a curious person — by himself, and also because of the impact he has on the distinguished house party he is called to investigate.

Alleyn came into the hall and was formally introduced by little Doctor Young, who seemed to be somewhat nonplussed by the Inspector’s markedly Oxonian voice.

It’s obvious immediately that his bearing and his accent are private school, but instead of being comforted that they’re around someone of their own class, the suspects (I think) are worried that he’s got hidden depths.

He does, of course, because he solves the murder in the end.

There’s also a point where a cast-iron alibi is established for one of the protagonists, but he — despite being a perfectly nice man — barely remembers it, possibly because the alibi is provided by one of the housemaids. It’s an unconscious classist act, and Alleyn remarks on the stupidity of it later.

Marsh is definitely worth a second look, if only to figure out the whys and wherefores of Alleyn.




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