Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Night at the Vulcan” by Ngaio Marsh

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Night at the VulcanMartyne Tarne has been in England from New Zealand for two weeks, and her money is about to run out when she happens upon the Vulcan Theater in Night at the Vulcan, also published as Opening Night, by Ngaio Marsh. Overhearing that the lead actress, Helena Hamilton, has just lost her dresser to illness, Martyne jumps at the opportunity for any job in the theater, where she has long wanted to work. The play features a role by the famous actor, Adam Poole, in which a young woman plays his daughter. And Martyne’s face looks so much like Adam’s that it startles everyone. With just two days to go before the big opening night, Martyne gets offered the understudy to the young woman’s part.

As the opening night arrives, Gaye, the woman supposed to play the part of Adam’s daughter falls to pieces and refuses to go on, forcing Martyn to take on the role with a mere half hour’s notice. As the play ends and everyone takes their bows, the cast and crew notice the smell of gas, and breaking down the door of Bennington, Helena’s estranged husband, they find him comatose. Nothing anyone tries to do can save him.

Thus Scotland Yard comes onto the scene, with Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn taking the lead. The signs initially point to suicide, with Bennington being killed with gas from his room’s fireplace. But Alleyn and his team question that and think it was murder. This alarms the theater people because only a few years earlier, someone gassed another by blowing through a pipe next to the room and causing the fire to go out and leaving the gas on. Could history be repeating itself?

One of the real strengths of this book is the intimate portrayal of life in the world of the theater. Marsh was given her “damery” for instituting the theater in her native New Zealand, where she performed, directed, did the backstage work, and did pretty much everything else in the theater. Thus, many of her books relate to actors or the theater. In Night at the Vulcan, we see all the backstage details, including all the makeup, the costumes, and the behavior of actors. Another thing we see is the superstition of actors against repeating anything from the Shakespeare play Macbeth. I find it especially amusing that Marsh manages to fit at least one quote from the play in each of her books.

Marsh’s other big strength is her character portrayal. We get a vivid sense of the exhausted, destitute Martyn as she stumbles into the theater to look for a job. We also clearly get an image of Gaye as she throws her tantrum that allows Martyn to perform. We really get a strong look at each character in the novel. And speaking of characters, we also get to see Michael Lamprey, the young boy in Surfeit of Lampreys who was so interested in detection. He has now grown up and is working with Alleyn for Scotland Yard.

James Saxon performs the audiobook of this piece. He does a good job of narrating and makes the book seem even more exciting. He has the kind of voice that sounds much as I imagine Alleyn as having. He also does a great voice for Inspector Fox, making him very believable.

Night at the Vulcan spends so much detail on the characters and their relationships among each other, as well as the life in the theater that the murder does not even take place until a little over halfway through the book. But that adds to the flavor of the book. This book is very enjoyable and deserves four stars.

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

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