Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Final Curtain”

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Final CurtainFamous painter Agatha Troy has three weeks to wait for the return of Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn from four years’ service in New Zealand during the Second World War as Ngaio Marsh’s Final Curtain opens. She gets invited (well, pretty much commanded) to go to Ancreton, the home of Sir Henry Ancred to paint the old actor in his most famous role as Macbeth. After initially turning the “great man” down, Troy gives in and travels to the castle to paint the man’s portrait. While there she meets the whole extended family, all but one of whom work in the theater business, as well as Sir Henry’s paramour, Sonia Orrincourt, a failed actress herself. And while there, Troy becomes witness to and subject of some childish pranks that everyone is eager to attribute to the youngest granddaughter, Panty, despite Troy’s conviction that Panty has not committed all of these acts.

Ten days after arriving at Ancreton, the family holds the annual birthday party for Sir Henry in which he reads the latest version of his will and at which they reveal Troy’s masterpiece. When the curtains are opened to display the painting, they discover a green cow flying over Sir Henry’s head, a cow reminiscent of the cows Panty has been painting all week, leading to more chaos among this histrionic family.

Then, in the early morning hours, Sir Henry’s granddaughter, who rather looks up to Troy, wakes up the painter to tell her that Sir Henry is dead. And all but Sonia are shocked to learn that Sir Henry changed his new will to write out everyone but his new fiancee. Everyone assumes he has died of gastric trouble after eating too rich of food at his party. But then, shortly after Alleyn’s arrival back in England, Thomas, one of Sir Henry’s sons, visits Alleyn with anonymous letters sent to each of the eight family members in residence claiming that the famous actor died of arsenic poisoning and implying Sonia as the murderer. This leads to a case highly dependent upon knowledge of the individuals in the book.

Final Curtain is another example of Marsh’s ties to the theater. She received a “damery” from Queen Elizabeth in 1966 for her service to the British Empire in establishing live theater in her native New Zealand, and many of her books contain elements of the theater. In addition, virtually all books contain quotes from Marsh’s favorite Shakespeare play, Macbeth, a play seen plenty in this book, as Sir Henry poses as Macbeth for his portrait. He discusses the superstition in the theater against quoting from “The Scottish play,” stating that he played the role six times with great success and luck. We see the Ancreds showing tremendous emotionalism in all they do, reacting with high drama to every instance. I am unclear, though, whether this extra histrionic tendency is Marsh’s depiction of people she knows from the theater or a satirical portrayal of the those in the acting profession. She actually makes a statement in Vintage Murder that actors live different lives than non-actors, wearing a mask naturally among people not of the theater.

The characters in this book come across as very lively and vivid, a particular gift of Marsh’s. Each one has a very distinct personality so that we can still recognize them despite the fact that so many arise. The plot of the mystery, while following numerous interesting clues, depends largely upon the nature of each character.

One detail I really enjoy here is seeing the way that being separated by war for nearly four years has affected Troy and Alleyn’s marriage. Troy worries about how the couple will connect to each other after being separated so long and having experienced the war, Alleyn as a hunter of spies in New Zealand and Troy as an artist working on maps. The two have saved up conversation topics as both show nervousness at getting to know each other once again. This case actually serves to strengthen their marriage as they work together to a degree. Some reviewers have complained that this detail dates the book as too old, but I find it really interesting, especially having been written at a time when many couples were facing such complications. This also has implications for today as we still have many members of the military separated from their family by war, and this gives us a glimpse into their challenges.

Nadia May narrates the audio edition of this book. I thoroughly enjoy her performance. I did find it annoying that May mispronounces the name of Alleyn, but she does pronounce it as you might think from reading it. I only know that it is pronounced like Allen because Marsh has written so.

Final Curtain is not one of Marsh’s most famous books, but it definitely deserves to be read. It opens our eyes to Marsh’s world of performers and is a good example of her gift for drawing characters and settings. The mystery is a bit unusual as well. I give this book four stars.

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

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