Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Overture to Death”

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Overture to DeathDetective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn goes to the small village of Chipping in 1939’s Overture to Death, published during the height of Ngaio Marsh’s heyday. The local church really needs a new piano, so a group of eight local citizens gets together to raise money for a new piano by putting on a play. Two middle-aged spinsters, Idris Campanula and Eleanor Prentice, embody the modern term “frienemies,” heads always together in gossip against the rest of the world, but backbiting at each other in private and fighting over the affections of the widowed Rector Copeland. Eleanor Prentice lives with her brother-in-law, the someone dense Squire Jocelyn Journingham, and his son, Henry, who is in love with Dinah Copeland, daughter of the rector and a young lady trying to make her way on the London stage. Both the squire and rector oppose the marriage of this young couple, the squire because Dinah does not have money and the rector because of what Dinah calls reverse snobbery, concern that she’s trying to reach above her station. The final pair consists of Dr. Template and Mrs. Celia Ross, a new resident of Chipping with a suspicious background and with whom it seems apparent that Dr. Template, the husband of an invalid, has been having an affair.

The eight put on a play, but the question of what music to use as the overture creates a passive- aggressive fight between Miss Prentice and Miss Campanula over which woman gets to play her signature piece that each has used to drive her neighbors crazy. Finally, Miss Prentice gets assigned to perform, but a week before the play, she gets a sore on her finger that gets badly infected, forcing her to give up the position of pianist half an hour before the curtain is to rise. So Miss Campanula sits down at the piano: “POM! POM! POM!” Then BANG! The lady has been shot in the head. Miss Campanula has actually managed to shoot herself by pressing the soft peddle of the piano, to which is connected a revolver rigged up with Twiddle Toys, a children’s system of engineering with pulleys and ropes. Thus Alleyn gets called onto the scene to investigate.

This book is a strong example of Marsh’s abilities in drawing her characters vividly. Each one has unique features that brings her or him to life. We find both Miss Prentice and Miss Campanula to be odious and nearly disgusting in their methods of trying to spread bad will about others in the community through the confession box. Henry and Dinah try to be modern in discussing the sexual repression of the two ladies as they chase the rector. At one point, Dinah tells Alleyn that Miss Prentice “sublimate[s] her natural appetites and work[s] them off in religion.” The couple’s psychological language about sex and the older generation does get tiresome at times. Mrs. Ross makes a point of coming onto the men around her, especially the well-off ones. Even such minor characters as 13-year-old Georgie Biggens and Sergeant Roper give memorable roles.

Nadia May, the pseudonym for Wanda MacCaddon, does a terrific performance in narrating this audiobook. I love her audiobooks, as she does a great job of portraying the sense and experience of the book. I highly recommend listening to this book.

Curiously, each time I approach Overture to Death when I go through the books by Marsh, I find myself not really looking forward to this book, probably because of the strongly negative roles of the spinsters. But once I get into the book, I get reminded each time what a good book it is. The actual murder is possibly the most creative I’ve come across, and the details that lead Alleyn to his solution seem so minor, such as the marks of a box outside a window, but lead Alleyn to the answer. I give this book five stars.

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

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