Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Death at the Dolphin”

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Peregrine Jay has discovered the old Dolphin Theater that was glorious in its heyday but is now a ruined wreck after having lain disused for years and then suffered bombing damage in the Blitz 25 years earlier in Ngaio Marsh’s 1967 novel Death at the Dolphin. Excited to get to visit the old theater, Peregrine gets a key from the estate agent and goes inside to explore. Enchanted more and more by the theater, Peregrine doesn’t pay close enough attention and falls through a trap door on the stage that opens to a well of fetid, stinking water that has collected since the bomb. Just as he feels that he cannot hold on any longer and will drown in the slimy mess, a man comes in and pulls him out, getting his chauffeur to undress Peregrine and cover him with a heavy rug from the car. The man keeps apologizing and accepting the blame for Peregrine’s accident, taking him to an elaborate, elegant house, where the valet runs a bath for Peregrine and gives him a brand new set of high quality clothing.

It is now that Peregrine discovers he is in the house of Mr. Vassily Conducis, one of the richest and most reclusive men in the world. And Mr. Conducis owns the Dolphin Theater. In shock over his experience and a bit drunk, Peregrine makes an impassioned plea to save the theater and renovate it instead of turning it into a commercial building, his excitement’s inspiring Mr. Conducis to show Peregrine a beautiful old portable desk. Inside this desk are hidden two very old pieces of paper and an ancient glove. The papers indicate that the glove was made by William Shakespeare’s father, who made gloves for a living, for Hamnet Shakespeare, the Bard’s son who died just after he wore it on his 11th birthday.

A few days later, Peregrine is astonished to be given a commission from Mr. Conducis to refurbish the theater and manage it. Amid the work of fixing up the theater, Peregrine, inspired by the glove, writes a play about it and gets his close friend and roommate, Jeremy Jones, to do the set design and costumes for it. He gets a famous actor, Marcus Knight, to play Shakespeare and has another famous, but notoriously troublesome actor, Hartley Grove, thrust upon him as another character in the play. With the results of the glove’s authentication indicating that the glove is really genuine, the world keeps its eyes on the Dolphin Theater and The Glove as they both open.

For six months, the show runs with a display of the Shakespeare glove until the last night the glove is scheduled to be there. Peregrine and Emily Dunne, the actress in his play with whom he has fallen in love, go to the opening of a local restaurant after the show and rush back to the theater after dinner to get in out the rain. There they find Henry Jobbins, the night watchman, killed. Further, the annoying Trevor Vere, the child playing the role of young Hamnet, who has spent the evenings after each show tormenting Jobbins until his mother gets off her nightclub job, lies unconscious after having been hit by one of two heavy dolphins commissioned by Mr. Conducis to go with the reopening of the theater. Further, the glove, along with rye accompanying documents, has been stolen! Thus enters Detective Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn to investigate the case with his usual suavity and intelligence.

Usually I don’t like Marsh’s theater books, probably because the characters come across as shallow and overly emotive. But Death at the Dolphin is the strong exception to this opinion. I really enjoy all aspects of this book. I find the plot highly original. I like the characters (or like to dislike them). And I enjoy getting to see Rory Alleyn investigate the case.

The plot comes across as unique and imaginative, and we experience along with Peregrine the feeling of sinking into that well of filthy water and the way that this experience shapes the rest of his life. The whole idea of Hamnet Shakespeare’s getting to have a glove made by his grandfather that he wore only once before dying at a tragically young age catches our imagination and seems plausible the way it is presented. Plus, Marsh’s career- long, probably lifelong, love affair with all things Shakespeare that comes out so obviously in all her writings, adds to the credibility of this. Remember that while we now know Marsh for her Inspector Alleyn books, her main claim to fame came from establishing the live theater in her native New Zealand, so she knew well of what she wrote in her theater-based books.

The characters in all of Marsh’s books are always drawn vividly and with great personality. Her real genius was in depicting her characters in lifelike images and basing the solutions to her cases upon this reality. We really seem to know Peregrine and feel the pressure of putting on his play, especially with the knowledge that he wrote about a real glove that he could tell no one about until Mr. Conducis gave him permission, just before the running of the play. In contrast we come to find Grove irritating and young Trevor positively annoying. It is in getting to understand the workings of the characters that we come to understand the motive of the murder.

And, as always, it is a delight to watch Alleyn and his trusty Inspector Fox investigate the murder. They don’t have as much face time in this book, as the murder and theft don’t happen until the second half of the book, but they still please the readers when they appear, and their methods of solving the case are of interest as always.

James Saxon performs another great narration job in Death at the Dolphin. He uses strong expressions and terrific voices for the characters, making the book lively and of great interest.

I really enjoy listening to Death at the Dolphin. I have listened to this book several times and seem to enjoy it more each time. This book has so much imagination and fun to it that I give it five stars.

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

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