Sir Derek O’Callaghan, Home Secretary of England, has been too anxiously pushing through an anti-anarchy bill in Parliament to deal with the growing pain in his stomach in 1935’s The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh. Collapsing at the introduction of the bill, O’Callaghan gets rushed to the nursing home of Sir John Phillips with a ruptured appendix, needing emergency surgery. Sir Derek gets taken right into surgery against the urgings of Sir John, who encourages Lady O’Callaghan to get a different surgeon. The surgery seems to be a success, but an hour later Sir Derek lies dead.
A week later, Lady O’Callaghan goes through letters of her husband’s and is disturbed to find several threatening letters. In addition to a lot of letters from anarchists somehow connected to communism, Lady O’Callaghan finds two personal letters that really alarm her. Aware that her husband has for years had minor affairs with women, Lady O’Callaghan is not surprised to learn that a woman is involved, but what alarms her is to discover letters from a scorned Jane Harden, one of the nurses who attended the surgery, and Sir John Phillips, who is in love with Nurse Jane and threatening Sir Derek for ruining the lady. With these letters as proof, Lady O’Callaghan calls in Scotland Yard, causing Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn to enter the case.
It soon becomes apparent that several people had both opportunity and motive to kill O’Callaghan. And the communist anarchists may have had a role in the form of a devotee nurse who rejoices at the death or the patent chemist who is courting Miss Ruth O’Callaghan, the sister of Sir Derek, and gave her patent medicines to treat Sir Derek. This takes Alleyn, along with Nigel Bathgate and his fiancee Angela North, to a secret meeting of a communist group. But this is not the only motive possible for the crime, and Alleyn has to get to the bottom of things.
The book is clearly a product of its times. I do find the equating of communism and anarchism to be very confusing, since the two are very distinctly different theories. While we see from Dorothy L.Sayers (see this column in several months for her books) that intelligentsia in England played with communism in the 1920s, by the 1930s there was a big Red Scare that influenced England and France to fear allying with the Soviet Union in 1939 against Hitler. Thus, Stalin made an alliance with the Nazi leader to his detriment. The book also talks a lot about heredity and eugenics in the form of the anesthetist, Dr. Roberts, who has written a book on the subject and tried to push through a bill forcing sterilization of the “unfit.” While eugenics was practiced even in the U.S. in the form of forced sterilization, the worst example was Hitler’s trying to eradicate the Jewish race and kill off all disabled people.
This book is where Inspector Fox begins to show his personality. We see him develop a dry sense of humor and get hints that despite Alleyn’s calling Nigel his “Boswell,” the forerunner of Watson who wrote the biography of Samuel Johnson, it will not take long before Fox will take his place.
The book introduces a theme that will become featured in upcoming books, that once Alleyn, in the form of the law, gets started, no one can just call him off. He cites a play called Justice and explains, “Once you have set in motion the chariot wheels of justice, you cannot turn it off.” Upon seeing the consequence of the investigation, Lady O’Callaghan tries to order Alleyn to halt his work, but he cannot because once they discover murder has been committed, they cannot turn a blind eye. Thus it is a very serious thing to start the process of getting the law to act.
As in all other books by Marsh, the author brings in a reference to Macbeth, this time in the form of its most famous quote: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked [sic] this way comes.” Alleyn quotes this when he discusses his intuition that gives a sense that certain lines of inquiry likely will not lead to a solution.
Philip Franks performs the audio version of this book. He does so effectively, with appropriate expression that seems realistic to the book. I think his pronunciation of certain names, in particular Alleyn’s Russian servant Vassili, seems more accurate than the pronunciation of James Saxon. I enjoyed this performance.
A Nursing Home Murder has a creative solution that today may seem a bit farfetched, but when viewed as a product of its times, the book keeps a lot of interest. I give it four stars.
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