Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Grave Mistake”


In Grave Mistake by Ngaio Marsh, former woman of the theater Verity Preston has lived in her original hometown of Upper Quintern and now uses the chance to write plays. Her childhood sometimes-friend, Sybil Foster, whose daughter Prunella is Verity’s goddaughter, accompanies Verity to a private party at the estate of their new neighbor, the rich collector Nicolas Markos. There, Verity is alarmed to see a face from her past, now calling himself Dr. Basil Schramm, and Sybil is drawn at once to the highly magnetic man. Verity can’t settle down to her writing before receiving news that Sybil’s stepson from her late husband’s first marriage, the “egregious Claude,” is about to arrive from Australia. Thus, Sybil checks herself into Greengages, a spa rest home, to avoid having to face Claude.

After a few weeks of Sybil’s being at Greengages and Claud’s annoying everyone at Upper Quintern, Prunella comes to Verity to tell her that she has become engaged to Gideon Markos but needs help telling her mother, who has her heart set on Prunella’s marrying a lord. The trio makes the trip to Greengages, where Prunella incurs the wrath of her mother for her engagement. While there, they run into Bruce Gardener, who is Sybil’s gardener whom she adores. He has been visiting her with flowers from her garden every Saturday. And he has been followed by the “egregious Claude.” Leaving Greengages, the trio never see Sybil alive again. She has died of an apparent suicidal overdose of sleeping pills. But there are a couple anomalies, enough to bring in Superintendent Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, with his partner Inspector Fox.

Grave Mistake is a creative book with many interesting angles to it. At one point while investigating the room of the murdered woman, Inspector Fox comments to Alleyn that he hates cases like this one. Instead of narrowing in on a suspect right away and building up a case against that person, this time they have a number of possible suspects and have to determine whom to focus their investigation on. Thus, we are given plenty of potential suspects to weigh and guess the involvement of. The plot as a whole starts just a little slowly, but it picks up quickly. There are various threads to the plot that blend nicely in the end.

The characters in Grave Mistake have very compelling personalities that make us invested in their cases. We feel empathy for Verity as she deals with the self- centered people around her. We come to detest Claude and his sponging on those around him and snooping around Sybil’s house. And we get frustrated and impatient with Sybil for her focus so much on herself that she cares little about her own daughter’s real happiness.

Jane Aster performs the audio edition of this book, but I confess to not appreciating her performance very much. For one thing, the voices she gives the characters get annoying, especially that of Alleyn and Fox, who have high voices in this book that sound almost like that of women. Fox especially, being stocky, should have a lower voice, but Alleyn certainly should sound masculine, being a suave man who is attractive to women. I found other expressions to be annoying as well.

I have come to love Grave Mistake as I have listened to the book several times. I appreciate the angles of the plot and the way we see several potential suspects and keep guessing about the identity of the murderer. I give this book four stars.

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