#1937Club: Vintage Murder

Ngaio Marsh, Vintage Murder (1937)

I always enjoy joining in with Karen and Simon‘s club weeks when I can, and this time I managed to overlap with my own Reading the Theatre month. The featured title is one of Ngaio Marsh’s classic mysteries, fifth in her Roderick Alleyn series and the second one to feature a theatrical setting. Marsh, as you may know, was a theatre director herself. She also hailed from New Zealand, and as this book took Alleyn there along with a traveling theatre company, I expected it to be an interesting combination of setting, character, and plot from a knowledgeable writer.

Alas, I was disappointed. I had read Marsh’s first theatrical mystery, Enter a Murderer, which turns on the who-put-real-bullets-in-the-prop-gun device. It failed to thrill me, for reasons I can’t even clearly remember now, but I thought I’d give the author another chance. In this one, the large cast of characters failed to distinguish themselves to me — the men., that is; the three women, a gorgeous star actress, an irritating and talentless ingenue, and a portly character actress, are easy enough to tell apart, while not having much depth or nuance. I had a hard time keeping track of the rest, and I didn’t care much about them, after the nicest one got killed off in an absurdly far-fetched way at the outset.

The solution to the mystery was also the far-fetched kind that I find annoying, one of those that hangs on the problem of who could have been in a certain place at a certain time, and might as well be a logic problem plotted out on a chart with A, B, C instead of names. (Marsh actually did include a chart, which I skipped over.) The key to such a mystery is the elaborate way of ensuring that the murderer could be in the crucial place and time without anybody seeing them, preserving their alibi. I find this kind of puzzle simply boring, when not complemented by interesting psychology or at least a vivid sense of place.

There was a smidgen of local color when Alleyn took the star actress out into the New Zealand wilds to let nature work its magic and move her to fess up what she’d been hiding. Fortunately he didn’t get quite as up close and personal with his subject as he did in Enter a Murderer, but the episode was still distasteful. Also distasteful was his attitude, and everyone else’s, to Maori people, customs, and artifacts. Savages and monsters, all, even when they practice Western medicine or are given as amusing presents from one white person to another.

The book, that is to say, definitely smacks of 1937, and it could have been worse. At least Alleyn objects, though only mentally, to the habit many of his compatriots have of calling men “white” as a compliment.

So my second Ngaio Marsh left me cold, and I wonder if I should try any others. Do you have any favorites by this author? Anything with a bit more depth? Or did you read something else from 1937 that you can recommend?

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20 thoughts on “#1937Club: Vintage Murder

  1. I liked this one somewhat more than you did, but I agree that there were some views that I had trouble reconciling, and that much of the technicality went over my head, even as a former amateur theatre kid.

    1. I don’t mind technicalities if I have some interest in the characters. (I just skip over the parts I don’t understand). But here they just didn’t grab me.

  2. My favorite Marsh theatrical mysteries are a linked pair from later in her career. Killer Dolphin/Death at the Dolphin from 1966 and her last novel Light Thickens from 1982.

    1. I was thinking of trying the Dolphin book (or books, I think there are two set in that theatre?). Maybe next year.

      1. Thinking of my memories of these books, the most problematic aspect of the first book is some of the characters seem to show bias against other characters that they feel might be what would now be called LGBT. I don’t know that this shows the feelings of the author, but it certainly does correspond with attitudes of some people at that time and place.

        1. Indeed, such attitudes are pretty common in literature of the time and sometimes can be the author’s own as well.

  3. I never got past the first half dozen pages of the Marsh mystery I tried a couple or so years ago, and on the basis of your two experiences it appears my instinct may have been correct. A pity, as you’d think that with her theatrical experience she would have understood the essential requirements of a good story – characterisation, plotting, and credibility.

  4. I haven’t read this, but have Opening Night, one of her other theatrical mysteries, on the TBR and was hoping to fit it in before the end of the month. I feel less enthusiastic about it after reading your review, but maybe it will be better than this one!

  5. Interesting to see the different responses to this during the week – others seemed to like it more, but I’m with you on not liking overly complex and unsatisfactory murder mystery plots. I’ve read Opening Night, mentioned above, and really liked it – though don’t remember any specifics.

    1. There were some things to like about it, but I had a hard time caring about the characters or the mystery solution … I’m reading Dancers in Mourning now, and finding it more engaging. I won’t finish it in time for the “week” though.

  6. Who put real bullets in the prop gun?
    Wait — that’s a 2024 mystery story starring Alec Baldwin!
    I enjoyed your reviews but I guess I won’t read the books.
    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

  7. Hand in Glove, Killer Dolphin aka Death at the Dolphin, A Surfeit of Lampreys are my favorites.

    I just saw there is a biography. I will have to look for that.


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