Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Light Thickening” by Ngaio Marsh

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In Light Thickens by Ngaio Marsh, the Dolphin Theater, under the production of Peregrin Jay, is holding a performance of Macbeth. This play is known as a cursed play to the superstitious in the theater, who refuse to quote from the play or even to name it, calling it instead The Scot’s Play. In fact, the book’s official description on Amazon states that “tradition requires anyone who utters its proper name backstage to leave the building, spin around, spit, curse, and then request permission to re-enter.”

The first half of the book devotes itself to the many details of rehearsing to put on the play. We also see the superstition of the cast, with someone’s playing cruel jokes in the theater, such as scaring people with the mask of the ghost of Banquo or putting the head of a dead rat in the bag that one of the witches reaches into. This just fuels the tension in the theater all the more. So when something horrible happens and a man dies on stage, the fact that someone dies is no surprise. It is the manner of death that shocks. And that leads to the involvement of Chief Detective Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, who happened to be in the audience at the time.

Ngaio Marsh set her final novel amid her favorite play in Light Thickens, published to acclaim in 1982. Marsh readers will notice references to the Shakespearean play Macbeth in most, if not all, of Marsh’s books. Though we now think of Marsh as a famous mystery novelist, her big acclaim was for developing live theater in her native New Zealand, where she performed virtually all roles possible on the stage. To honor her for her contributions to theater, Queen Elizabeth II appointed her Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, which Marsh liked to call her “damery,” in 1966. She dedicated this book to actors James Laurenson and Helen Thomas, who played Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Marsh’s production of the play in 1962.

In this book, we get to learn a lot about the details of staging a play like Macbeth. We watch as Sir Dougal McDougal as Macbeth and Simon Morton as Macduff learn to fight with claymores, ancient Scottish swords, getting each step down perfectly as they perform the intricate choreography crafted by Gaston Sears, an expert in ancient weaponry. We see the witches work out their scenes, based upon the ideas of Rangi, a Maori actor playing one of the witches. We also see the planning of lighting and props in addition to the work with the actors.

This book will be much less accessible to people not familiar with the play of Macbeth. Marsh was so familiar with the play that at times I think she forgot that not everyone will know it as well as an actor who played in it or, as in her case, a director and producer who staged the play. If you have seen or read the play but not in years, you should be able to follow the book but with some potential difficulty. But if you have never read or seen the play, you might have challenges in following along with the first part of the book. However, that will not affect your enjoyment of the mystery or even appreciation of learning about the staging of a play in general

The mystery plot of this play is not as strong as those of most Marsh books. For one thing, the murder takes place late in the book. Further, the path that Alleyn and his partner, Inspector Fox, take to solve the mystery tends to telegraph the solution to the astute reader. It seems less complex than the other books written by Marsh.

I had fun being reintroduced to some old friends from Death at the Dolphin, but I would have liked to get to see more of old friends for the last time. We got to spend plenty of time with Peregrin Jay, the director of the play, and he now is married to Emily, whom he met in Death at the Dolphin, and they have two young boys. We hear references to Jeremy, the set and costume designer, though he doesn’t make a personal appearance. In addition, we see Winterborne, the head of the box office. I liked getting to spend more time with an older Peregrin, but I really wish we could have seen more of Alleyn and especially Fox, who has only one significant scene. We do briefly get to see Sir James Curtis, the medical examiner, but not Bailey, the fingerprint man, or Thompson, the photographer. And even more disappointingly, we don’t get to see Troy, Alleyn’s famous painter wife, who is the perfect foil for Alleyn. At least we got to spend time with Troy in the previous book, Photo Finish. But given that this is Marsh’s swan song, I really would have liked a grand reunion with our regular cast.

James Saxon performs the audio edition of this book, and as usual, he does an excellent job. What more can I say about Saxon that hasn’t already been said? He was truly a great narrator who deserves all the accolades possible. He makes this book so much more lively in his recording of this book.

When I first listened to Light Thickens ten years ago, I didn’t like it very much, so I only revisited the book once since then before today. It turns out that the third time was the charm for me because I appreciated the book a lot more this time than then. Perhaps my study of Marsh for this column helped to give me a greater appreciation for this book because this time I found the rehearsal scenes to be of interest and the murder well-suited to both Marsh and her favorite play, Macbeth. This book really brings to life “The Scot’s Play” and the theater world’s approach to it. I give this book four stars.

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

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