Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Last Ditch” by Ngaio Marsh


1977’s Last Ditch by Ngaio Marsh turns its focus to Ricky Alleyn, the son of Detective Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, as Ricky goes to the Channel Islands to immerse himself in his work in writing a novel. There he runs into a family who met his parents once on a cruise, and Ricky finds himself falling in love with the wife, Julia Pharamond. He also makes the acquaintance of Sid Jones, a wannabe painter with a bad attitude until he learns that Ricky is the son of Agatha Troy, ther greatest painter England has ever produced. Ricky keeps suspecting Sid of nefarious behavior, especially when Sid, who works as a paint salesman in exchange for free acrylic paints toi use, gets furious when Ricky accidentally steps on one tube, causing it to burst open. Another day the Pharamonds talk Ricky into joining them going horseback riding at the stables owned by Mr. Harkness. The fire-and-brimstone religious man is furious that his daughter, the highly promiscuous Elsie, is pregnant and tries to lock her in her room. But Elsie manages to escape and takes out the bay mare against her father’s express orders. When the family and Ricky return to the stable, they find the body of Elsie in a ditch behind a big bush, apparently the victim of having taken too dangerous a chance in jumping the horse where her father has forbidden her to go.

Ricky is disturbed by his experience finding the body of Elsie but also because he is bothered by the circumstances. So his father gets sent to the Channel Islands to deal with two issues: the possibility that drugs are being moved into England through the Channel Islands and the chance that Elsie Harkness was murdered. Ricky involves himself in the cases and almost becomes a case himself.

Last Ditch is but one of a few books by Marsh that deals with the illegal drug trade and the criminals who traffic in heroin in particular. We see Alleyn assigned to cases relating to drugs in Spinsters in Jeopardy and When in Rome, and in all three cases, the drug cases also force him to deal with murder cases. In this book, both cases provide plenty of interest once Roderick Alleyn arrives, but it took him a long time to show up, leaving the first part of the book less exciting. The plot picks up dramatically once the inspector comes to town.

The characters in this book have strong personalities. The Pharamonds actually hark back to the Lampreys of 1938’s Surfeit of Lampreys in their exuberance for life and social activities. The one difference is that we don’t see them going bankrupt because of spendthrift ways. But Marsh must have intended this similarity because Julia Pharaday actually explains that she was born into the Lamprey family, some relatives of hers being people Alleyn met years ago. Mr. Harkness adds flavor to the book as a wild figure who leads his own crazy religion and turns to alcohol after the death of Elise. One reason I don’t like this book as much as others by Marsh is that Ricky doesn’t have the suavity and charisma of his father. He lacks the personality that draws me back time and again to Marsh’s books.

Nadia May continues her strong performance of the audio edition of Last Ditch. She does a fantastic job of making such a classic mystery accessible and enjoyable. The only complaint I have about the audio is that each new chapter starts immediately after the conclusion of the previous, without any pause. It even gives less time than May typically gives between sentences, making the new chapter run directly on top of the previous which is disconcerting.

Last Ditch is not one of Marsh’s strongest books. Putting Ricky in as an amateur version of his father was not a big success. I did appreciate getting to see plenty of the fun interaction between Rory Alleyn and Inspector Fox. But there wasn’t enough of Superintendent Alleyn to make the book as much of a success as it could have been. The trail of the drug plot was of interest, but I didn’t connect as much to the trail of the murder plot. However, the book does have a very dramatic ending. I give this book three stars.

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

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