November 13, 2003

Death and the Dancing Footman, by Ngaio Marsh

When one thinks of traditional English murder mysteries one immediately thinks of country houses, billiard rooms, breakfast buffets, dressing for dinner, butlers, maids, and all the rest of the trimmings. And yet this, Marsh's eleventh novel, is only her second country house mystery. (Her first was also her first novel, the underwhelming A Man Lay Dead.) And like the first, it's about a house party with a gimmick. And just as this one is immeasureably better than that first novel, so it also has a better gimmick.

Jonathan Royal is an unmarried middle-aged gentleman of means whose chief amusement seems to be observing the behavior of other people. After bankrolling a successful play, he decides to try his hand at a different kind of drama: a house party made up entirely of people who are at odds with each other. I won't go through the list, as that's part of the fun; I'll simply say that it's a wonder that the murder doesn't happen as soon as the party assembles, instead of rather later.

Inspector Alleyn makes a remarkably late appearance in this one, his latest in the series to date; although he's mentioned as an acquaintance by one of the characters early on in the book, he doesn't actually appear until page 183. Even then he doesn't have much to do; once he's questioned everyone and done an experiment or two, the answer's obvious (to him, anyway).

I had trouble getting started with this one at first, in part, I think, because the thought of a house party composed of enemies rather put me off. But I must also confess that I was deeply involved in our projects during that stretch of time, and hadn't much brain left by the time I opened the book.

Posted by Will Duquette at November 13, 2003 06:51 PM