Death at the Bar (1940) – Ngaio Marsh

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Ngaio Marsh has long been considered one of the “Queens of Crime”, a leading author in the fair-play detective tradition of the inter-war years. You just have to look at the laudatory comments covering my reprint edition to see her reputation – “She writes better than Christie”, “Among the Queens of Crime she stands out as an Empress”, and so on. Reactions I’ve seen on classic crime fiction blogs have been… less positive. However, this is my first time reading a Marsh book, so aside from some vague worries about “dragging the Marsh”, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The book begins by focusing on barrister Luke Watchman as he drives to the quiet village of Ottercombe on the Cornish coast. This holiday is the repeat of one he took last year – three idyllic weeks spent with his cousin Sebastian Parish and his friend Norman Cubitt, a painter. On the way there he makes the acquaintance – via car collision – of Robert Legge, the secretary of the Coombe Left Movement, of which the beautiful Decima and her boyfriend Will are members. Not that Will’s dad, the publican Abel Pomeroy, thinks much of that (indeed nor does Ngaio Marsh, treating it with a kind of patronizing contempt). Initially I granted Luke the sympathy that being the focus of the narration tends to come with. This is helped by his completely understandable horror on learning that Abel, the landlord of the Plume of Feathers pub where the friends are staying, is killing rats using a bottle of deadly cyanide that he keeps in the first aid cupboard. But though we see many interesting sides to Luke’s character, his unsympathetic behaviour mounts. This reaches a head the day after his arrival, when, following a poetically described moment of immersing himself in nature, things turn very dark. Suffice to say that by his second night, Luke has alienated his friends, argued with the locals, and transformed into the obvious victim of a murder mystery where every character has a reason to want him dead. The depiction of this is excellent, and I can’t think of a more nuanced and realistic version of this setup that I’ve seen elsewhere.

By this point we have reached the end of the first third of the book. I was enjoying the setup portion, with its decaying relationships and rising tension (culminating, of course, in a thunderstorm), all the while being conscious that I was reading a murder mystery and still no-one had died yet. I knew who was going to die and how, and I began to get a bit frustrated despite my enjoyment.
The death itself was definitely intriguing, and even darkly amusing. Poisoned blowpipe darts are standard issue for mystery stories, so how about a mundane pub dart that has been poisoned instead?

Unfortunately, following the death comes the inquest. Though the inquest has its touches of droll character sketches, for the most part it is simply dry repetition of events we had already seen. The novelistic opening of getting to know the characters had already reminded me of Christianna Brand, and the inquest just reminded me of how much better the inquests are in Brand’s stories – full of character insight, tension, and shocking revelations.

And after the inquest we meet Roderick Alleyn.
As first meetings go, it was not a positive one. He doesn’t have much going on character wise, apart from a slight tendency to make light of things in a way that was supposed to be witty but that I instead found deeply annoying. I got the sense that though he was mostly polite, he had no respect for anyone outside the police. He does display a rather touching concern at some later plot developments, though.

The evocative first edition cover

I have no issues with his investigation style, which surpisingly seemed to aim for a realistic effect, with him even conducting the odd scientific test. There’s lots of talk about the banalities of police work, for example, and about his approaches to interviewing suspects. It is true that the latter half of the story is very interview-heavy. I suppose this is a natural consequence of a character-focused writer writing an investigation. Though it was a little repetitive, I don’t think it worked too badly here as each conversation has its own tone and pacing – something unique about it. They don’t all blend into one round of samey questions.

Mystery-puzzle wise I was impressed. Though some conclusions about the tricky setup of the death were easy to draw, I quickly fixed on the wrong culprit, and figured out the ingenious trick that had been used long after Alleyn did. The clueing was very solid for the most part – information, behaviour, timing, physical evidence – all are very effective clues in this story. Some clues even stood out to me as being some of the better ones I’ve seen in Golden Age fiction (ROT13: Gur snpg gung gur cbvfba ybbxf vqragvpny gb jngre zrnaf gung jngre ybbxf vqragvpny gb gur cbvfba). However, getting to the solution alongside Alleyn would unfortunately require some technical knowledge, which is only stated in the book just before the denouement. If this detail had been slipped in earlier, the book would have been outstanding on the clueing front. Despite this issue, I came away from this feeling like I could rely on Marsh to deliver complex puzzles with good explanations – or maybe I just got lucky, who knows.

The book also features an amusing writing style that was one of its main pleasures. The narration has a tendency to pin characters down with a witty description, and some characters, such as the unconventional Chief Constable Colonel Brammington, and the obnoxious gossip George Nark, are amusing in and of themselves. There are also the odd meta touches, where characters foreshadow coming events by accident or discuss murder mysteries. I’m not a huge fan of those generally, but they were quite appealing here. I hope the local bobby gets his promotion.

Marsh’s writing is also quite adept at being poetic and atmospheric, conjouring up some striking images at times. What it is less good at is depicting the setting. Though the inside of the pub is well drawn, as well as the tunnel leading to the village, I got no sense of its general layout, and up until a later scene makes it clear there must be a reasonable population in Ottercombe I was picturing it as a handful of houses surrounding the pub. Marsh sets the stage for her scenes without quite putting it all together.

She takes more time to detail her characters. Of particular interest are the three visitors, Luke, Sebastian, and Norman, as well as Robert Legge. These are all well drawn – Marsh reserves her wittiest descriptions for Sebastian and his actorly ways. The other characters do fall by the wayside, unfortunately, even when there are the glimmers of what could be interesting side-plots. Much is talked of the beautiful Decima, and she herself seems to be faced with a dilemma about what direction her life should go. But she is the focus of only a few scenes and her primary function seems to be as a prize for some of the male characters to fight over. Her boyfriend Will similarly has hints of disagreement with his dad about whether he will take over the pub. This relationship drama is also left unresolved. Other writers would ensure that all the character threads are tied off before leaving them, but once Alleyn reveals the solution, there is no wrap-up for any subplots. While the mystery was satisfying, the subplots ultimately felt pointless.

That dissatisfaction aside, I definitely enjoyed this book. While it hasn’t leaped to an immediate favourite in my classic crime rankings, I would happily explore more of Marsh’s work. Luckily, my copy is an omnibus, and has two more of her most well-regarded stories.

Other opinions:

The Grandest Game in the World
My Reader’s Block

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Nicholas Fuller

    Marsh is excellent; ignore the naysayers. Solid puzzles, elegant writing. Try
    Artists in Crime (1938)
    Overture to Death (1939)
    Death and the Dancing Footman (1941)
    Colour Scheme (1943)
    Final Curtain (1947)
    Scales of Justice (1955)
    Off With His Head (1957)
    Singing in the Shrouds (1958)

    1. Velleic

      Cheers for the rundown, Nick. That gives me a good idea which of the omnibuses (omnibi? omnibodes…) to head for and which to avoid. Curious the gap from 1948-1954 – or the mid-career revival.

  2. I had that omnibus edition pictured at the top, and thoroughly enjoyed Death in a White Tie and Overture to Death…and then somehow the volume went missing before I got to Death at the Bar, so I’ve always wondered if it was worth checking out. Despite my misgiving about Marsh — I’ve read a couple more and found them pretty tedious — I’d be curious to finish off this trilogy based on your review, since our thoughts on her writing seem to overlap.

    Maybe one of these days…

    1. Velleic

      Ah, sorry that you lost the book. Maybe it’ll turn up someday. It is a rather chunky thing to lose.
      I’m glad the other two in the collection are also strong ones. Out of curiosity, which did you read that were tedious?

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