Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Vintage Murder”

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Vintage MurderVintage Murder takes us readers on our first trip with Ngaio Marsh to her home of New Zealand. Ordered abroad for his health, Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn joins up with the Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company, managed by Dacres’s husband, Alfred Mayor. Arriving in Middleton, the troupe performs to sold-out audiences, and on day three of the visit, Mayor throws a large birthday party for his wife. He has rigged up a fancy apparatus that, using stage techniques, will cause a lot of champagne bottles to descend when Carolyn cuts a cord. But something goes wrong, and a bottle lands hard on top of Mayor’s head, killing him. Thus Alleyn gets forced into yet another case, this time from a new culture.

The details of exactly what was supposed to happen and what exactly did happen are confusing to me, but it is clear that someone has tampered with the apparatus. As someone who knows nothing about the methods used in system properties, I couldn’t follow the details. One challenge of Marsh’s books that deal with the theater is that she sometimes forgets that we lay people don’t understand the terminology and workings of the stage. In fact, one time I asked a friend earning her M.A. in theater what the OP Entrance is, since Marsh likes to use that as a reference point in her books, and my friend had no idea what that was. Marsh also makes some really astonishing generalizations about actors, and if I did not know that Marsh herself lived the life of the theater, not only acting, but creating sets, writing scripts, and directing, I would find these generalizations disturbing. However, I have to assume that she wrote from a position of knowledge of her topic.

The many characters in this book sometimes became difficult to keep straight, as there are so many characters in this book. In particular, the interviews of the many people who attended Carolyn Dacres’s party got tiresome, with various repetitions. Alleyn has a somewhat strange romantic picnic scene with Carolyn, since as a brand new widow, the lady should not be having romantic interludes. As a suave, highly eligible man, Alleyn seems natural for having romance, but this one does not seem appropriate. It is much better when he meets Agatha Troy in the next book.

The book has a unique perspective: the view of New Zealand as seen through the eyes of people from England, but written by a New Zealander. It uses a lot of New Zealander slang that sometimes Alleyn finds so complicated he needs translation. I would be curious to learn how prevalent these slang terms were in 1937, when the book was published, and whether any of these slang terms are still commonly in use today in New Zealand. The book also deals with the view of the Maori natives. Coming from a 1937 view, this book could be seen as enlightened, though from today’s perspective, the representation of Maoris does hold to some negative images. For example, Dr. Te Pokiha is described by a New Zealand police officer as being 90% civilized, but the savage does come out rarely. I find this curious, the author’s middle name, Ngaio, under which she chose to publish, is a Maori name, and she does apparently have a lot of fascination for that culture. I did find intriguing the way Dr. Te Pokiha responds to the ignorant, offensive treatment of the Maori tiki that Alleyn gives to Carolyn Dacres. He points out that his ancestors must have responded in a similar way to their first view of a crucifix.

James Saxon does a good job of narrating this book. He makes a great performance of using accents, including different classes in both British and New Zealanders. One of his great scenes was when voicing the New Zealander Detective Parker while he was trying to tell his girl about Alleyn, giving the voice of a New Zealander trying to give the accent of a high class Brit. Saxon also does an excellent job of Alleyn’s travels around the catwalk, talking about what he sees, but also sounding like he’s puffing at the effort and his professed fear of heights.

Vintage Murder is one of Marsh’s strongest early books. Despite my confusion over the details of how the murder took place, I still enjoy this book. The trip to Marsh’s home country that she clearly loved gave plenty of pleasure. I give this book three stars.

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

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