Thursday, February 4, 2010

Murder Amongst the Upper Crust

Inspector Roderick Alleyn himself comes from the upper crust of society. The second son of a baronet, he spent two years in the British diplomatic service before (for reasons never explained) deciding to become a cop.

And quite a successful cop he was. In thirty-two novels written over nearly a half-century, Alleyn used his sharp mind and keen deductive skills to unravel one complex murder case after another.

The Alleyn books were written by New Zealand native Ngaio Marsh, who consistently presented her readers with the two most important things in a mystery series: a likable protagonist and well-constructed mysteries.

Overture of Death (1939) is typical of just how skilled a writer Marsh was. A woman who was about to play the piano introduction for an amateur play is shot dead. It turns out the piano had been booby-trapped with a pistol rigged to fire when one of the foot pedals was pressed.

But wait! The woman hadn’t been the person originally scheduled to play the piano, but rather a last-minute replacement. Was she the intended victim, or was the lady who was supposed to play the real target? Both women were unpleasant, mean-spirited gossips, so there is certainly more than enough motive to go around.

So Inspector Alleyn has quite a job ahead of him. But we have fun following him around as he gradually pieces it all together. He’s a witty and decent person—someone we can’t help but like. His interplay with his sidekicks—Inspector Fox (refered to as “Brer Fox” by Alleyn) and reporter Nigel Bathgate--adds to the entertainment value of the book and helps to humanize the man. I love a bit where Alleyn and Fox rig the booby-trap back into the piano using a water pistol to test it out, then playfully trick Nigel into getting a face full of water.

But there’s little time for Alleyn to play. He digs up obscure and superficially meaningless clues (an onion found discarded near the crime scene proves important) and deals with the fact that pretty much every suspect is lying or withholding information about something. But, in the end, he comes up with a time table that allows him to finger the killer.

Despite his long and successful career, Inspector Alleyn never reached the same level of fame as Hercule Poirot or Philip Marlowe. But Ngaio Marsh was an excellent mystery writer and Alleyn would easily deserve a seat the same table along side the other Great Detectives.

Only two books to go before the Great Detectives Survey comes to an end. Next month, we'll visit Miss Marble and The Body in the Library.

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