In Death and the Dancing Footman, one of Ngaio Marsh’s most creative, complex, and crazy books, Jonathan Royal has decided that he needs to work out his aesthetic cravings. However, Jonathan is no good at writing or art, so he has decided to work out his frustrations in the genre of human manipulation. He conceives of the idea of planning a weekend party at his estate of Highfold at which the guests are all at daggers drawn towards each other. And Jonathan will direct the action. He first introduces us to the Compline family. William is the excessively devoted son and Nicholas the ungrateful, blackguard of a son, but their mother, Sonia, favors Nicholas. Recently, William has become engaged to Chloris Wynne, who used to be engaged to Nicholas. This creates the first set of conflicts. The Compline family has a good friend, Hersey Amblington, a cousin of Jonathan’s who owns a spa and beauty salon. Hersey’s greatest rival is “the pirate,” Madame Elise Lise, who has set up her own competing salon across their small town. Madame Lise is but the chief of several women Nicholas philanderer with, driving Chloris out of his arms and into William’s. But Nicholas also has a rival for Madame Elise’s affections, a plastic surgeon named Dr. Francis Hart. The final crazy twist is that the career of Dr. Hart is one calculated to create horror in Sonia Compline because over 20 years earlier, a plastic surgeon destroyed her face. And to conclude, art must have an audience, so Jonathan brings in the famous, surrealist playwrite, Aubrey Mandrake. With all this hatred floating around Highfold, it comes as no surprise to anyone but Jonathan that someone gets murdered.
In the midst of this weekend party, the group gets deeply snowed in from a blizzard, but the snow stops in the middle of the night, so the next morning Aubrey and Chloris venture out to find Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, whom they know to be vacationing with his wife nearby. He gets up a primitive substitute kit of materials needed to do basic forensic work. And before too long, Alleyn’s team arrive to do the investigation.
Possibly more than any other book by Marsh, Death and the Dancing Footman relies on character development to drive both the mystery plot and the pleasure in the reading. A less skilled writer of individual natures than Marsh would not be able to pull off this book effectively, but as it is, this is one of my favorite Marsh books. The actions of each character are clearly motivated by the actions of the others around him or her. Just the premise of the book makes this obvious to the reader.
One detail that arises in this book is the occurrence of the Second World War. The book was published in 1941, at a time when the country was observing black- out conditions, a condition that gets mentioned at least twice in the book. Further, we see how William has been slogging in ice and mud in France, while Nicholas has been living the good life in the country far enough away from London to avoid the worst of the Blitz but close enough to have the comforts of the city. We also see a lot of anti- foreign sentiment. Madame Lise makes a point to remind Dr. Hart to speak in English rather than his native German because although he is a naturalized British citizen born in Austria, racism is very strong, something we see in the attitudes of the servants. We further see debates about whether it is reasonable to execute someone or hold a court witness back from military service if those people could be usefully put in the service of the country. While the latter situation of a situation is just a minor footnote, Alleyn does get approached about not prosecuting someone who could serve in the military. His response is that of justice, that we can’t excuse injustice for utility’s sake. It is of worth noting that with the exception of her Tommy and Tuppence book N or M?, Agatha Christie did not make any mention of the war during its duration in any of her books until the war in Europe had ended. But Marsh even referenced the fact that war seemed imminent in books published just prior to the start of open conflict. And once war was declared, Marsh made the war significant points of her books.
James Saxon does a powerful job of performing the audiobook version of this book. With so much intrigue happening in such a complex manner of interconnectedness in the book, it takes a truly gifted narrator to pull off the shifts in alliances and details of all that goes on. In particular, I think Saxon’s voice is ideally suited for playing the role of DCI Alleyn, sounding educated and upper class, while also approachable. And as certain characters slowly go to pieces, Saxon portrays that path as well as Marsh writes it.
I have long considered Death and the Dancing Footman to be one of Marsh’s strongest books in her ability to work with her characters and craft a mystery that seems not to have a possible solution but which eventually makes perfect sense. There is a category called humorous mystery. I would label this one a dark humor mystery. It shows a high degree of creativity as well. I give this book five stars.
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