Ngaio Marsh: ‘Enter a Murderer’

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It was a shock to re-read ‘Enter a Murderer’ (1935) by Ngaio Marsh after 15 years and find that I didn’t like Roderick Alleyn.

Obviously I hugely admire Marsh’s body of work and I suppose I’m now so used to the wonderful Patrick Malahide version of the Chief Inspector on TV, that I have superimposed him on any of these stories that I now read.  This can work with the later, more mature stories.  But ‘Enter a Murderer’ is only the second in the series.  I also decided to re-read the first one, ‘A Man Lay Dead’ (1934), to get started again on the series, and I was definitely in for an unpleasant surprise.

The earliest Albert Campion I adore.  The earliest Lord Peter Wimsey likewise.  In fact I probably prefer them to their later more adult and responsible selves.  I love their craziness and ‘joie de vivre’, their gabbiness and self-confidence.  But Roderick Alleyn in his early incarnation – eek!  I found myself almost embarrassed for the poor chap.  He seemed fey instead of charming, condescending instead of self-confident, even slightly bullying and manipulative at times towards his minions, and as for his interaction with women – double eek!  I felt like searching out his future spouse Agatha Troy in the pages of books yet to come and saying ‘Run!  Run like the wind!’

It was doubly unfortunate that I was re-reading this book for our Classic Crime Club (at Bromley House Library in Nottingham) just after we’d discussed ‘Swan Song’ by Edmund Crispin.  I’d also read that one before but I can read Crispin any time and get a kick out of it.  The settings were similar – Crispin’s with opera singers at an Oxford theatre, Marsh’s with actors in a London theatre.  The fact that Marsh called this ‘the Unicorn case’ in the Foreword gave me hope that this might prove magical and exciting.  But of course it was only because the setting was to be the Unicorn Theatre!  Well, perhaps that disappointment reflected what was to come.  Crispin’s story was silly but sparkling.  In comparison it was very easy to get rather bored and bogged down in Marsh.

Ngaio Marsh


The background is dripping with hatred and blackmail.  I won’t go into any detail.  One problem with reading Classic Crime fiction is that we are so familiar with all the main methods of murder in the many subsequent novels that stories from the Thirties can look not just clichéd, but like a wrinkly cliché with long grey whiskers supporting itself on a walking frame.  We now know that the moment someone steps onto a stage that a heavy object from above will fall on them (usually a chandelier) and that any prop knife or gun will turn out out to be real.  Enough said.


I got a bit fed up of all the back-stage specialist knowledge, although I do appreciate that Marsh was writing this partly out of nostalgia for the theatre when she was back in New Zealand caring for her father after her mother’s death.   The difference in her level of skill between the early rather clunking descriptions of England and the English and her later stories, especially those featuring New Zealand, is obvious.


When the main suspects are actors you never know whether they’re telling the truth or acting their butts off – handy for the author but increasingly tedious for the reader.  Every time the Inspector interviews yet another flighty/drunk/egocentric narcissist, you think ‘Here we go again, they’re lying throughout their highly-polished teeth.’

I was amazed to realise that most of the main characters are in their mid-20s.  Several sounded like raddled old roués!   And what was Stephanie thinking in her dalliance with the repellent Surbonadier?   A problem all murder mystery writers have is that when a murder victim has got to be so unpleasant that at least one person would risk hanging to kill him or her, the victim has also had to be nice and attractive enough in the past for people to have wanted to hang out with them, have affairs with them, etc, in the first place.

And don’t talk to me about Nigel Bathgate the journalist.  The poor sap was bad enough in the first book.  And here he is again, in an even more unlikely role as Alleyn’s right hand man until, thank goodness, DS Fox takes over in later books (despite Alleyn calling him ‘Foxkin’ ).  The cigar-chomping impresario Jacob Saint was sufficiently terrifying (even if he does have a footman called ‘Mincing’!!) .  There’s old Susan Max the actress, Felix Gardener the star, the men and women behind the scenes – no shortage of suspects.  Could Surbonadier even have committed suicide and framed his main rival?

Roderick Alleyn

Alleyn’s appearance – his face is described as “winged”, ie. mouth, nostrils, eyes all slanting upwards – not bad for a 41 year old.  Although that could sound as though he’s had several sessions with an over-enthusiastic plastic surgeon.  (Perhaps there’s a tiny version of RA walking around made out of the excess skin, like in the famous Joan Rivers’ joke?)

Everyone says Alleyn has a marvellous memory at the beginning, but then later on he says his memory is “filthy”.  Is this Marsh reflecting her father’s character in the Inspector?  She says in her autobiography that his memory was notoriously bad and gives striking examples of it.  Her father was an ex-public schoolboy from Dulwich College in England, where the old boys were called Alleynians, after Edward Alleyn the Elizabethan actor who founded the place, thus the Inspector’s name.  And Marsh tells us that it is pronounced ‘Allen’, not ‘Allain’, in her article on Alleyn’s origins. Perhaps Alleyn’s early rather alarming playfulness is a direct reflection of her late Victorian father?  The fact that Alleyn asks Bathgate if he can do shorthand, when Bathgate took shorthand notes for him in the previous novel, is perhaps proof of his “filthy” memory.  (Another proof might be that he twice refers to the name of the murderer in the first book – does he not care about spoilers?!)  He is supposed to be good at mimicking people, and in this story imitates several accents.  He even gave one of his “rare laughs”.  He prefers a pipe to cigarettes.  Startlingly, he says he doesn’t “understand law”.  Er, what job do you do, again?

And then there’s the ‘romance’ – Alleyn’s B-movie dialogue and canoodling with an actress/suspect, despite the fact that he calls all actors “a bit thick”.  He holds Stephanie, the glamorous, in his arms:

“ ‘What’s this?’ he said roughly. ‘I know you’re everything I most deplore – and yet – look at this.  Shall I kiss you?’ “ 

He returns to this later:

“ ‘I would say I hated myself when I held you in my arms.  It would only be half true.  My thoughts were a mixture of grovel and glory.’ “ 

There is also the strange way he does a body search of another actress, almost in a mystical trance!

But I am grateful for one phrase of Alleyn’s that could prove useful.  Instead of getting the “heebie-jeebies” as we might say, he gets the “ooble-boobles”.  That’s great!  I might adopt that.

So, yes, I do normally love Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and think Ngaio Marsh was astonishingly talented, but in this reading of ‘Enter a Murderer’ her creation has given me a touch of the ooble-boobles.  I stand by my advice:

‘Run, Troy, run!’

I’ve included some more problems with the plot in the NOTES below, which contain Spoilers.

And if you’d like to see a preview of my last book, here is a link:


I’ve already read Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Enter a Murderer’ twice so I certainly don’t want to read it a third time to find out whether I’m right about what was wrong!  So forgive me if this is mere nit-picking or forgetful speculation on my part, but, as far as I could tell, these seem to be loopholes and/or gaffes in the plot:

1]  It’s possible, but not at all necessary, that Felix Gardener would not bother looking at the hanging figure and therefore spot it was only a dummy.  Alleyn was taking a heck of a gamble.  And it was highly likely who the body was supposed to be, by a process of elimination, so why couldn’t Gardener have made a correct guess and acted out his role accordingly?

2]  The “threatening letter” that was typed on stage – wouldn’t someone have been able to see that Felix wasn’t merely typing ‘Q’ over and over?  Plus there would have been the typewriter ribbon with the letter on it available to the police from the word go.  Why didn’t they check it?  Gardener wiped the keys clean but didn’t bother about the fact that he’d left evidence of an incriminating letter behind.

3]  As several people in our reading group pointed out, why on earth did the murderer choose a night when a police inspector was at the front of the audience?  Oh well, at least Alleyn had a “busman’s holiday” with a free ticket paid for by the murderer, as he himself concludes!

Marsh and MacDonald

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MacDonald's 'At the Back of the North Wind'

MacDonald’s ‘At the Back of the North Wind’

Marsh and MacDonald

In my last blog, I made a link between a passage I had been reading in a Ngaio Marsh murder mystery and the memorial service for C S Lewis. I never dreamt I would be doing the same again for my next blog, although this time not about C S Lewis but in reference to his mentor, George MacDonald.

This week I moved on to reading Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar (1939), beautifully realised on TV and DVD with Patrick Malahide as her Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. If you like murder mysteries that also take you on a trip to the seaside with your favourite detective, then this is one for you (as well as the classic ABC Murders with Poirot, of course). ‘Death at the Bar’ is a pun, much beloved by Marsh for her titles, as the murder victim is killed at the bar in a darts match in an old-fashioned pub but is also ‘at the bar’ since he is a lawyer. Meanwhile, Inspector Alleyn is up to his eyes in work and exhausted in London and so is rather pleased to get the chance to travel to Ottercombe in Devon on the south west coast of England for a change that might prove something of a rest.

He and his main sidekick Inspector Fox are soon holed up in the olde worlde pub where the murder has taken place and are interviewing suspects. But they cannot resist the charm of the beautiful scenery stealing over them. One night, instead of concentrating on poisons and fingerprint evidence, Alleyn takes a break:

“He got up, stretched himself, and leant over the windowsill. The moon was out, and the sleeping roofs of Ottercombe made such patterns of white and inky black as woodcut draughtsmen love. It was a gull’s-eye view Alleyn had from the parlour window, a setting for a child’s tale of midnight wonders. A cat was sitting on one of the crooked eaves. It stared at the moon and might have been waiting for an appointment with some small night-gowned figure that would presently lean, dreaming, from the attic window. Alleyn had a liking for old fairy tales and found himself thinking of George MacDonald and the Back of the North Wind. The Combe was very silent in the moonlight.”

This is just one of the very evocative descriptions by Marsh of the Devonshire coast and what a small English coastal village was like in 1939, almost cut off from the rest of the world. There are also interesting political discussions between characters, like Nark and Legge and Will Pomeroy, which would not be out of place in the polemic over emergent evolutionism, scientism, and social progressivism also used in C S Lewis’ cosmic trilogy of the same period and confirm that he had his finger on the pulse of the times (if more confirmation were needed). But I am chiefly grateful at this moment for this evidence that one of my favourite literary detectives was also a fan of fairy tales and the father of fantasy fiction, that his first recourse on a moonlit night was to think in imagery derived from the marvellous MacDonald, or should I say that I am grateful for this reminder from the mind of his fantastic female creator, Ngaio Marsh.