Ngaio Marsh published her first novel in 1934’s A man Lay Dead. Nigel Hawthorne gets invited to a weekend party at the estate of Sir Hubert Handesley, joining his cousin Charles Rankin, a well-known socialite. Nigel gets greeted by an assortment of guests, and they learn that the big game that weekend will be a game that was popular for weekend parties at the time of the writing of the book, Murders. In it, one person gets randomly assigned the role of murderer and has to get someone alone, announcing that the person has been killed. Then the murderer hits the gong to announce someone has been killed and turns off the lights. After waiting two minutes, the weekend party group is to come down and solve the murder. The night that the game commences, most of the guests go upstairs to bathe and change before dinner, with the exception of Charles. As Bathgate gets ready and talks with Arthur Wilde, who is bathing next door, the gong sounds and the lights go off. When everyone convenes downstairs after the required two minutes, they find Charles, not playing dead but being truly dead, stabbed in the heart.
Thus enters Roderick Alleyn, and the narrative shifts from focusing on Bathgate to alternating between Bathgate and Alleyn. Since Nigel has the only solid alibi among all the guests, Alleyn turns to him as a sounding board, a position that Nigel plays in most of the next dozen books in the series, to a greater or lesser degree depending upon the book. Issues of Russia spring up throughout the book, starting with the erudite and somewhat creepy Dr. Tokareff, a Russian emigre, and the Russian butler, Vassily. In addition, Charles brings an elaborate antique Russian knife of Mongolian origin to the house because he knows Sir Hubert collects weapons. This knife arrived in the mail that day with a simple message that indicated the knife came from a man giving thanks to Charles, who earlier saved the man’s life in a snowstorm that took two of his fingers. There also are hints of further Russian plots and questions whether the death relates to these plots. Alleyn allows the guests to assume that an outsider sneaked in to the house to kill Charles, but really he knows that the murderer is a member of the weekend party.
This book introduced Roderick Alleyn to the world, though it is Marsh’s weakest of her 32 books. Alleyn gives clues that he comes from a privileged background, such as noting that his female cousin went to university (Oxford I think?) with the upper crust Rosamund Grant, a major achievement for women of that era, since women were not granted degrees from Oxford until 1920. By his speech patterns and means of relating to those around him, Alleyn further demonstrates his social status, a position that becomes much more obvious in subsequent books.
The book lays the basis for the rest of the Roderick Alleyn books, most of which take place in the countryside if they don’t take place in the theater. The plot is creative in its solution, but its path to the solution comes across as weak. The red herrings seem so unrelated to the solution that they do not fit very well. Though the characters by no means develop the details of characters in later books, in this book, they are reasonably believable, playing a significant role in the conclusion to the book.
James Saxon performs the narration of the audio edition of this book. Usually I like Saxon’s performances, but I do not particularly enjoy the job he does with this book. I find his voice for the Russians to be unconvincing and irritating. His reading of Dr. Tokareff especially grates on my ears.
Though I am a fan of Ngaio Marsh, I recommend A Man Lay Dead only to those who already know and love Alleyn and want to get to know him better. The book is not terrible; it just does not come close to measuring up to Marsh’s usual standards. I give it two and a half stars.
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