June 26, 2004

Final Curtain, by Ngaio Marsh

Since April, 2003, I've been slowly working my way through Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn mysteries in chronological order. The last one I read and reviewed, A Wreathe for Rivera, was an accident; somehow I accidentally skipped over the present novel. I go into this only because Final Curtain occupies a key place in the sequence--Roderick Alleyn spends the years of World War II doing anti-espionage work in New Zealand, and is parted from his wife, the artist Agatha Troy, for the duration. This is the book in which he returns from New Zealand, is reunited with Troy (as he calls her), and takes up his police duties once again.

Consequently, the book is fraught with tension. Alleyn and Troy hadn't been married long when the war broke out, and haven't seen each other in over four years; both are concerned that whatever magic they had for each other has evaporated. And no sooner is Alleyn home than he ends up investigating a murder to which his wife is a prime witness; this is difficult for him, as he first got to know her during an unpleasant murder investigation (in Artists in Crime, and it caused such trouble between them that since then he's been trying to keep his home and work lives compartmentalized. And now all of those mental barriers are necessarily falling.

The quintessence of the English murder mystery is the country house mystery, which, as Marsh seems to delight in avoiding cliche, is probably why this is only her third novel in that sub-genre. And, typically, it's not just a country house mystery; Marsh brings in her beloved theater by making it a country house mystery about actors.

Sir Henry Ancred is a famous Shakespearian actor, now nearing the end of a long and productive and highly emotional life. He's the patriarch of a large dramatic family; not all are actually on the stage, but the only one of his descendants who isn't giving to making scenes and over-dramatizing every little thing is in fact a theater producer. He browbeats Troy, who is eagerly awaiting her husband's return and not much interested in working, into coming to his stately home, Ancreton, and painting his portrait. Thus, Troy becomes our viewpoint character for the first half of the book. While there she meets his unspeakable family and the young starlet they fear he will marry, and when he dies in bed after an overly rich dinner and a fit of rage she has a niggling feeling that perhaps his death wasn't entirely natural.

She and Alleyn discuss it, and are the verge of forgetting the whole thing when the CID receives an anonymous letter claiming that Sir Henry's death was murder. Alleyn must find out whether it was murder, and whodunnit, and reconcile his job with his married state.

All in all, not a bad outing.

Posted by Will Duquette at June 26, 2004 08:06 PM