Three Grand Dames of Mystery: Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh

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Enter a MurdererNgaio Marsh publishes her first novel set in her own personal world of the theater in her second book, 1935’s Enter a Murderer. Nigel Bathgate, the journalist introduced in A Man Lay Dead, gets tickets to a play at the prestigious Unicorn Theater from one of the stars, Felix Gardener, with whom Nigel attended Cambridge, and he takes along with him Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Visiting Felix before the play, the pair meet much of the cast, including a hostile Arthur Surbonardier, who is clearly drunk but does a fantastic job of pulling off the acting role. As the play comes to its climax, Felix’s role calls for him to shoot Arthur at point-blank range, a direction complicated to pull off because the shot of a blank in the gun would scorch Arthur’s clothing. So the plan is for him to fake firing the gun and a real gun fired with the blank from off-stage. However, today the gun fires a bullet that kills Arthur almost instantly. It’s just bad luck for the murderer that Alleyn is in the audience and witnesses the whole thing.

Alleyn goes through all the important steps to investigate, interviewing everyone in the cast, with Bathgate taking down the conversation in shorthand. Felix shows a lot of distress over having committed the murder, but, as Alleyn points out, he has been used as an instrument of murder, similar to the gun, but Felix still gets emotional. As Nigel gets more and more deeply into the case and the actors, Alleyn has to order him to stay away from all the characters because he is getting too emotionally involved. As Marsh introduces at the beginning of this book, this is one of the most complicated cases of Alleyn’s career, but he still solves it through his in-depth understanding of not just human nature but also actors’ nature.

Enter a Murderer begins to give a taste of the real genius found in Ngaio Marsh. The solution is well conceived, and the denouement revealed cleverly. I also really enjoy that we get to meet Inspector Fox, who soon becomes Alleyn’s chief sidekick and best friend. Here, Fox has a very flat character, but starting in the next book, The Nursing Home Murder, Fox begins to round out.

The title gives us our first glimpse of Ngaio Marsh’s love affair with the Shakespeare play Macbeth. Marsh’s particular accomplishment that earned her the title of Dame of the British Empire was establishing the theater in New Zealand, and she was especially known for her love of Shakespeare and in particular Macbeth, which she references in each book, with the probable exception of her first book A Man Lay Dead. This is especially curious because of how often she references the theater superstition of Macbeth as a cursed play that must never be quoted outside of the theater. In fact, we learn from her that it is bad luck even to give the name of the play, instead referring to it as “The Scottish Play.” In this case, the title comes from a stage direction from the play, and the victim in this case gets shown to be a kind of Macbeth character in his evil sensibilities.

James Saxon provides the narration of this audiobook. I was critical of his performance in the previous book, but he does a much better job in this book. My only complaint about this recording is that there are numerous places where Alleyn or others whisper as they try to tiptoe about in search of the murderer or as the suspects stand nearby and Alleyn does not want the others to hear him. In such situations, Saxon lowers his voice significantly in both volume and tone so that it becomes difficult to understand what he is saying without raising the volume significantly. But then the volume of the book blares when he returns to normal volume. That really became difficult for me as I tried to follow the book.

While Enter a Murderer is not my favorite book by Ngaio Marsh, it still has a lot of fun details to it and is a big improvement on the previous book. I give it four stars.

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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