Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “False Scent”

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Mary Bellamy is excited to celebrate her 50th birthday with a party in which all the best stars in the theater world will attend in Ngaio Marsh’s False Scent. Mary is deeply self-centered and reminds everyone she has ever helped of how they would never have been a success without her. This leads to a massive temper tantrum when her friend Pinkie announces that she has been given the lead in a new play. Then, Mary’s ward, Richard Dakers, an up-and-coming playwright, writes a brand new type of play, and Mary assumes that the lead character, a young woman, was written for herself. However, Richard has in mind someone else: Anelida Lee, the Toby actress he is courting. At Mary’s big birthday party, the producers for Richard’s new play arrange for Anelida to play the lead, but when Mary gets wind of this, she throws the tantrum to beat all tantrums. Storming up to her room to refresh her makeup, Mary doesn’t come down for her celebration, leading her personal maid, Florence, to utter the fateful words, “Is there a doctor in the house?” But it is too late. Mary is already dead.

And now enter Chief Detective Superintendent Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox (Alleyn got a promotion in the last book, but poor Fox never gets one!), coming to investigate what could be an accident, a suicide, or a murder. They soon come to realize that Mary died from being sprayed in the face with her toxic plant spray, Slay Pest. But why did she not fight against the spray or try to duck from it? Alleyn must solve this mystery while everyone he interviews has something, usually irrelevant, to hide.

False Scent is one of Marsh’s strongest examples of drawing characters whom we can envision. We see Mary Bellamy change dramatically before our eyes, from the charming individual she likes to show the world to the monster she shows during her temper tantrums. The supporting cast become clearly defined in addition, especially Richard and Charles. We also get comic relief in the sparring between Florence and 83- year-old Old Nin, originally Mary’s nanny and then Richard’s after Mary adopted him.

The plot of this book carries interest as well, with the creative way of killing Mary, plus the delivery of the poison. The backdrop of Mary’s birthday party just makes the crime all the more gruesome, especially as press photographers crowd the party to get images of glamour for their newspapers.

James Saxon performs the audio version of this book and makes it clever and creative. He even sounds like you’d expect Roderick Alleyn to sound. I appreciate the way he adds life to any book he reads.

False Scent is a highly creative book with strong characters that lure the reader in. Marsh was a particular expert in the theater, so she would have known the types of people active in the theater, which gave her an advantage in creating her characters. I give this book five stars.

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

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