Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “When in Rome”


As When in Rome, written in 1970 by Ngaio Marsh opens, famous author Barnaby Grant is visiting Rome, where his greatest novel, Simon, is set, when he loses the briefcase that contains the only manuscript of his book. He is relieved greatly three days later when Sebastian Mailer returns the book and asks Grant to read his own novella, which contains a minor theme from Grant’s book. A year later, Mailer uses this to argue that Grant plagiarized from Mailer’s book and uses that to blackmail Grant into becoming the special guest of Mailer’s exclusive and highly expensive tour under the name of Il Cicerone, highlighting locations featured in Grant’s book.

As people are busy signing up for the tour, Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn arrives in Rome, sent by Scotland Yard to track down the source of the drug trade. Working tightly in connection with the local police led by il cuestore Valdano, Alleyn signs up for the Il Cicerone tour. In addition to Barnaby Grant, he is joined by six other people, some clearly there for the after-party nightlife. They visit the Basilica di San Tommaso in Pallaria, where a postcard-selling woman named Violetta accosts Mailer, trying to spit in his face. Traveling down through two millennia, they all admire the different layers of the two different basilicas built 1,000 years apart and the ancient Etruscan ruins far beneath that which honor the Mithraic religion of that ethnic group.

But sometime during the tour, Sebastian disappears. They continue the tour, including dinner at the most exclusive restaurant in Rome and a trip to a nightclub after. Then people get their choice of going on to a party filled with drugs, where Alleyn gets samples. But what has happened to their tour guide?

Ngaio Marsh made a special trip to Italy in 1968, and that inspired the creation of this novel, published in 1970. Marsh didn’t know about the workings of the Italian police system, so she put a lot of research into this book, not just about its police department but also forensics and the intricate details of the Basilica of San Clemente, after which the Basilica di San Tommaso is modeled. When in Rome was very highly received, with some calling this Marsh’s greatest book.

My personal response is not to like this book nearly as much as the reviewers did. It is a darker book than most Marsh books, with issues of blackmail and a rather gruesome body. It doesn’t fit into Marsh’s usual style, but her research does deserve real praise. I really did feel the sights and sounds of Rome, a place I’ve visited in only my imagination.

When in Rome contains some interesting plot points, and the conclusion shows real creativity. The book contains strong descriptions of the basilica and its contents as the people go down the levels to explore the ruins. Beyond that, we sense the activities at the nightclub and drug party that follows after.

Marsh’s special gift was in her drawing of characters to make them so realistic and believable. This book does not fail in that regard. We clearly see Grant’s resentment at being forced to do these tours. We also see the cheerful and buoyant von der Vagels in all their geniality. Then we recognize Kenneth and his cravings for drugs, as well as notice when he has gotten his latest fix.

I suspect that what made reviewers love this book so much is the combination of character development and depictions of life in Rome. The solution is a bit more complex than many in Marsh’s books, but I personally don’t see the rest of the book being more complex, though it is more descriptive of the sensual experiences.

Nadia May performs this audiobook with her usual expression and strength of narration. I love every book she records, and When in Rome is no exception. May adds to the flavor of the book and makes the experience of listening to it very pleasurable.

Even though When in Rome is not my favorite book, anything written by Marsh is excellent. I especially love the way she makes us invested in the characters, leaving us truly guessing who did the murder. I give this book four stars.

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

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