As we continue our survey of the books of Ngaio Marsh, we get to what is perhaps my favorite book, 1938’s Death in a White Tie. Someone has been actively blackmailing socialites amid those “doing the season,” when debutantes go to balls to look for a husband. Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn seeks out the help of Lord Robert “Bunchy” Gospell, who has helped Scotland Yard in the past, to help him find the culprit. Bunchy, around the age of 50, is popular with everyone of all ages who go to events in the season, making him ideal to help with the investigation. Alleyn first learned of the blackmail when Mrs. Halcott-Hacket, a former actress married to a retired general more than 20 years older than herself, went to Alleyn with a letter “her friend” received demanding £500 to get back a love letter from a man not her husband. As he describes the situation to Bunchy, Bunchy recognizes the handwriting in the letter as one he saw when he was visiting Evelyn Caradoss earlier that day and which caused her panic when her husband found it. They now have a new lead in the case.
Bunchy helps out first by going to a concert where Mrs. Halcott-Hacket has been instructed to leave her bag filled with money. Watching as a hand takes the bag, Bunchy identifies it as belonging to Dmitry, the caterer of the best balls. A week later, Bunchy goes to the Caradoss ball, where he sees Lady Caradoss with a bag full of money and begs her not to put the bag out for the blackmailer, but she insists on doing so. Shortly later, Dmitry returns the bag to Evelyn empty of the money. Soon Bunchy gets on the phone with Alleyn at Scotland Yard but gets interrupted in the middle so rushes to get off the phone. A couple hours later, Alleyn gets called to go down to the road at the Yard, where a taxi is waiting for a detective. He “has a stiff for a fare.” It is Bunchy, suffocated to death.
Marsh shows her great gift in writing, the development of her characters, particularly well in this book. Despite having a large cast, she draws each one so vividly that we feel we know him or her. This is the first book where Inspector Fox really comes into his own. He performs the role of confidante and sounding board for Alleyn, and we come to have affection for him.
Alleyn himself demonstrates his humanity, which we didn’t really see until he fell in love with Agatha Troy in Artists in Crime. Before that book, he seemed like a superhero, not prone to significant emotions. In Death in a White Tie, Alleyn shows a wide range of emotions as he mourns his dear friend and feels anger toward the killer, even vowing to Bunchy’s sister that if it takes his whole life and costs him everything, he will see the murderer hang. Yet he also shows his love for Troy, who is a good friend of Bunchy’s family.
Even though we don’t see very much of Bunchy ourselves because he dies early in the book, we see him through the eyes of each character and find ourselves coming to love him as Alleyn does.
As another fun touch, we get to spend more time with the Alleyn’s mother, who really shows her pluck and insightfulness in this book, as she accompanies Alleyn’s niece, Sarah, who is coming out this season. Lady Alleyn reminds me a lot of the Dowager Duchess of Denver, the delightful mother of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey. Both women clearly have had tremendous influence on their sons, inspiring their independence and analytical skills.
The plot of this book has some creative touches that take us through unexpected twists and turns. We get surprised when seemingly unrelated details and characters come together to create a unified picture that works to solve the murder. This book thus blends both strong character development and interesting developments in the plot.
James Saxon performs the audio edition of this book. He does a very good job of bringing this book to life. I was not fully pleased with the quality of the Audible recording though. Every so often, the recording changes in its volume, making me turn up or down the volume of my phone, on which I listen to my books using the Audible app. Other than this concern, I was very pleased with the quality of the audio performance.
I highly recommend Death in a White Tie to all. You don’t need to have read the other books by Marsh to enjoy this, though a familiarity with some previous books would probably make this a little more meaningful. The story drew me in right away and held my interest the whole way through. I have actually listened to this book close to a dozen times over the years, yet it fails to grow old. I give this book five stars!
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