Monday, January 12, 2015

Review of Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1935, William Collins)

Arthur Surbonadier is an mildly talented actor whose uncle, Jacob Saint, owns a string of theatres, including The Unicorn.  Arthur has been cast in a significant role, but he would like to be a lead actor and is prepared to blackmail his uncle to get his way.  He’s also vying with the charming Felix Gardener for the hand of leading lady, Stephanie Vaughan, and playing hooky with the props master’s daughter.  In the finale of the play Arthur is shot by Felix’s character using blanks, but the night that Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn is in the audience with his friend and journalist, Nigel Bathgate, the gun contains real bullets, with Arthur dying as the final curtain is closed.  With no shortage of suspects, Alleyn starts to investigate the case, trying to determine who swapped the blanks for real bullets.
Published in 1935, Enter a Murderer was the second book in the Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn series.  The story is effectively a locked mystery in that the perpetrator has to be either one of the actors or the stage hands with access to the stage props just prior to the final scene in which Arthur Surbonadier is shot dead, and Alleyn is in the audience and is present on stage just seconds after the shooting meaning that the time for tampering with evidence is minimal.  Marsh sets the story up nicely so that there a number of credible candidates for the role of murderer, all with the motive, opportunity and means to do away with the rotter, Arthur.  The telling is essentially plot driven, focusing on the action, interchanges between characters and the mystery puzzle, and almost has the feel of a play script.  The characterisation is somewhat weaker, with the cast made up of theatre and upper class stock types, and there is little sense of place - the tale could have been set in any theatre, anywhere.  Marsh slowly moves the pieces into place, with the hapless Bathgate providing the diversions as he jumps to conclusions, whilst Alleyn haughtily slots the evidence together, revealing the killer through a classic denouement of restaging the final scene.  Overall, an interesting theatre-based mystery puzzle.

No comments: