Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Photo Finish”

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In 1980’s Photo Finish, Roderick and Agatha Troy Alleyn both get letters from a rich millionaire asking them to come to his island in New Zealand. Troy, the greatest painter England has produced, is requested to paint the opera singer Isabella Sommita, known as “La Sommita,” and Roderick is requested to advise her on a paparazzo who has been tormenting La Sommita under the name of Stryx. When they arrive, they discover that La Sommita is about to perform a world premiere of an opera about the biblical Ruth by a young man, Rupert Bartholomew, called Alien Corn. Fifty or so dignitaries will be brought to the island for this premiere. Unfortunately, La Sommita’s voice teacher tells Troy that the opera is not any good, something that Rupert comes to realize himself. When Rupert tries to back out of conducting the opera, La Sommita throws one of her famous temperaments, adding real pressure to Rupert, whom she has taken as her lover. With pressure from the singer, he gives in but then apologizes to the audience for the poor quality of the music after the opera is over. In the midst of this apology, Rupert faints.

By the time the guests leave the performance for the fancy dinner prepared, a serious storm known locally as a “rosser” has arisen, and soon it will be impossible to leave the island. So guests rush to get back to the mainland. La Sommita, in the meantime, has thrown another of her temperaments and locked herself in her room. But just as the second round of guests leaves in the boat to the mainland, the whole house is filled with screams, but not of La Sommita. It is Maria, her devoted maid. La Sommita has been murdered, and she has been stabbed through the heart through a photo of her taken by Stryx.

With the phones down and no ability to reach the mainland, Alleyn communicates with the captain of the boat that is used to connect to the island through semaphore and morse code, but he is left to investigate by himself, without having any real jurisdiction and having to use primitive methods of forensics. He is aided by Dr. Carmichael, another visitor, and Troy. Together, they get to the bottom of the mystery of Stryx and that of the murderer.

As the book description on Amazon points out, Photo Finish offers a version of the country house mystery that was so popular in earlier days by the golden age mysteries. However, by 1980, country house parties had gone out of style. By locking people in an island mansion due to a storm, Marsh was able to create a more contemporary slant on an older scenario.

Marsh set four of her books in her native New Zealand, and this, her penultimate novel, shows another side of her country. I have really enjoyed getting to visit different parts of the country through the eyes of Marsh. One can really get a sense of the country and the different types of nature found throughout the country. It also was fun to hear Alleyn talk about a Maori elder he met in Vintage Murder and hear more about him.

The plot of this book was interesting as was the search for the killer. The setting involves a level of eeriness that complements the story. I also enjoyed seeing the more primitive methods of forensic research Alleyn has to use in tbr absence of proper supplies. For example, he uses one of Troy’s paintbrushes and talcum powder to look for dabs, the term he uses for fingerprints. The search goes through a range of motives, including La Sommita’s level of temper, the probable presence of Stryx on the island, and even a Mafia connection.

The characters in Photo Finish have a wide variety of natures and strongly feel real. La Sommita especially has a strong nature, to the extent that we can identify with Troy when she exclaims in rapture over getting to paint her, “She’s a monster!” We also connect with Rupert in his struggle over whether to continue with his position directing the opera, which might cause him to lose his lover. Troy always adds to the fun of the Marsh books. She is so personable and a very human person, willing to help her husband but a little overwhelmed at times. We do miss Inspector Fox in this book, but Troy’s presence helps to balance that out.

James Saxon performs the audio edition of this book, as well as most of this series. He creates a comforting attitude, sounding very much like Roderick Alleyn. The voices he uses for the other characters suit each one. In addition, the expressiveness of Saxon and his timing deliver us to New Zealand and the island mansion, bringing the book to life.

I enjoyed the experience of listening to Photo Finish. I had fun with the setting and thqqe characters. The storyline was creative as well. I give this book four stars.

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

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