The winter solstice is nearing, and South Mardian is preparing for its local mummery play that the community has held on Sword Wednesday for centuries, passing along the music and dance orally for the Dance of the Five Sons in Death of a Fool by Ngaio Marsh. Dame Alice Mardian is greatly displeased by the presence of an outsider, Mrs. Bunz, a folklore specialist, because the people of South Mardian want to keep things local. As Dr. Otterly plays the fiddle for the dance, William Andersen, the local blacksmith known locally as “the Guiser,” plays the Fool, while his five sons (Dan, Andy, Nat, Chris, and Ernie, whose initials together spell “dance”) play the five sons of the dance. Ernie, who is “not quite right in the head,” has long wanted to play the Fool, and it seems he will get his wish when he produces a note from the Geiser, who has been sick, saying that he can’t go on. They all do the routine, which ends with a mock decapitation of the Fool by the swords of all five sons. When it comes time for the Fool to rise, Ernie laughs hysterically, “Blood for the stone!” They discover that not only is the Geiser dead, but he has been decapitated!
This horror causes the local police to call in Scotland Yard and thus Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, with his team. The local people seem to be holding back details of the truth, especially in protection of Ernie, who looks like the most likely suspect. But is he truly capable of killing his own father and by such a horrific method? Alleyn uses the assistance of Dr. Otterly to solve the case in a most ingenious way.
Despite the gruesome method of death, Death of a Fool keeps the violence to a minimum, allowing anyone to be able to read this book, and it has a lot of fascinating details related to the morris dancing and mummery play. The German Mrs. Bunz adds flavor with her passion for learning anything she can about the dance, even going so far as to spy on the rehearsals that the group has taken great care to keep secret. We also learn some about the history of such plays, with the doctor’s own theory that the plays serve as the ur-text (prototype manuscript) of King Lear, with the Fool’s going mad, being killed, and being resurrected.
The characters in this book, just as is common with Marsh’s books, are drawn vividly. Their personae become crucial to the ultimate solution of the puzzle. We don’t see the four oldest brothers very much, but we do see Mrs. Bunz, Ernie, Dr. Otterly, and the other villagers, as well as Lady Mardian and her strange niece, Dulce.
I really appreciate the performance of Nadia May in the audio edition of this book. She uses impeccable timing, inflections, and depictions of each of the characters. All of these factors come together to make her one of my favorite audiobook narrators.
To sum up, Death of a Fool is a different book than most Ngaio Marsh books, but I felt that I learned a lot about morris dancing and mummery plays. It has one of the most creative solutions of any Marsh book. I give this book four stars.
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