Death and the Dancing Footman, by Ngaio Marsh

>> Tuesday, August 09, 2005

After reading a good one, I bought a big pile of books by Ngaio Marsh and I've started going through them by order of publication. The latest was the intriguingly titled Death and the Dancing Footman.

The party's over when murder makes an entrance...

With the notion of bringing together the most bitter of enemies for his own amusement, a bored, mischievous millionaire throws a house party. As a brutal snowstorm strands the unhappy guests, the party receives a most unwelcome visitor: death. Now the brilliant inspector Roderick Alleyn must step in to decipher who at the party is capable of cold-blooded murder...
Fascinating! A B+, probably my favourite of Marsh's so far (not that I've read so many, but still!).

This is a different "detective" novel, in that the detective, Marsh's famous Roderick Alleyn, doesn't enter the scene until about the last third of the book. There's a lot of time spent showing the situation until the murder, and the situation right after it, before Alleyn is called in, through the snowstorm.

I went into the story knowing nothing about the plot, other than what I read on the back cover, which was a tiny blurb, not even as informative as the one I quoted above (which is from the latest reissue, I think). So basically, for a long stretch of the book, I had absolutely no idea of how things were going to play out, who was to soon-to-be corpse (or even if there was to be a corpse), and this was really a lot of fun. I must say I never suspected what ended up happening. I'd imagined plenty of different scenarios, but this one was truly surprising.

Most of the action is seen through the eyes of the person invited by Jonathan to be basically the audience of the "play" he's put together in his house party, Aubrey Mandrake. Mandrake's a particularly interesting character to me, because he's a type usually not used as the hero of the piece, but as a laughingstock. A club-footed poetic dramatist, writer of unintelligible surreal plays, né Stanley Footling of Dulwich and terribly self-conscious about it... he's, nonetheless, written very sympathetically and given a very nice romance of his own, even as Marsh gently does make fun of him at times

The rest of the characters are just as well done, something that is key for such a character-based book to succeed. The young ingénue, nowhere near as silly as I had expected, the silent young man with a mother complex, the mother who much prefers her other son, the hopeless philanderer, the mysterious Austrian beauty... all were three-dimensional characters and interesting to read.

Something especially intriguing to me was the setting, not just the physical setting, which was good enough, but the time. This book was published in 1941, set in very early 1940 and probably actually written not long after that, right at the beginning of the war. And this war going on outside this isolated house is very much present in everyone's minds, and hovers all over the action, from the characters listening to the war news on the wireless, to their having to be careful with the curtains because of the blackout, to Alleyn wondering at the futility of trying to solve one little murder when a few hundreds of miles away, thousands of people are getting slaughtered.

My only qualm about this story is the solution to the crime. I don't want to give too much away, but I thought it was pretty easy to guess (the reference to a certain Dorothy L. Sayers book was a dead giveaway. It was probably supposed to be a kind of double-bluff, but it got me thinking in a certain way and that was it for me) and, at the same time, not too probable.

Still, for its well-drawn characters and fascinating interactions, DATDF was a success. And the "Dancing Footman" scene was hilarious!


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