NGAIO MARSH. Overture to Death (1939).

18 Jun

A love of the theater runs through Marsh’s series about Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, and her penchant for making all the world a stage plays out on two levels of this minor masterpiece of British mystery fiction. First, there is the murder of Miss Idris Campanula, which occurs at the start of an amateur charity production of a drawing-room comedy. A wealthy and not-much-loved spinster, Miss Idris has deigned to present a solo performance of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor as an overture to the play. But as her foot presses a piano pedal to sound the dramatic opening notes of that piece (pom-pom-POM), a shot rings out from within the piano and strikes her dead.

OvertureDeathOldPB.jpgNext, there is the work of detection that Inspector Alleyn conducts in the novel’s second act: It’s a drawing-room performance in its own right. Marsh follows her usual pattern of building a narrative by stringing together one interview scene after another. As Alleyn quizzes witnesses and suspects at a stolid, one-character-per-chapter pace, the effect isn’t always very dramatic—but it’s definitely theatrical. Few set changes are necessary, the authorial spotlight trains the audience’s attention in a straightforward way, and dialogue suffices to keep the plot moving along.

In this outing, moreover, Marsh brings to all of that chatter an arch wit and a flair for fine-grained social observation that call to mind Jane Austen. The Austen analogy may seem grandiose, but it’s not too much to say that Marsh excels at recasting the detective story as a novel of gentry-class manners. Like Austen, Marsh plainly adores, even as she satirizes, the almost otherworldly milieu of a certain type of English village. In Pen Cuckoo (yes, that’s the actual name that Marsh attaches to her version of Mayhem Parva), the players all know their parts and play them well. The squire’s son courts the rector’s daughter, the squire and the rector disapprove of that liaison, jealous old maids and designing young women do their nosy best to interfere with this budding romance, and around and around it goes.

Murder gives an edge to the satire, and Alleyn’s steady unraveling of the murder puzzle lends a clean, well-made structure to both the satire and the romance. In that structure, a single flaw emerges: Marsh neglects to cast real suspicion on any suspect other than the guilty one. That’s a fairly common flaw, however, and while it results in a drawn-out and mildly disappointing third act, it’s not enough to discourage readers—those who like this kind of tale, at any rate—from cheering for an encore.

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Posted by on June 18, 2010 in British, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


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