Life is full of mysteries, and so are the bookshelves at my house. Some of these volumes are books I’ve already read, but many still await opening — and yet, I always seem to be in search of something new. This month, my “something new” was something old — a thick secondhand collection of three Inspector Alleyn mysteries by Ngaio Marsh, discovered at Third Place Books just after Christmas, when I was trying very hard not to buy anything.
The author, whose Maori first name is pronounced Nye-o, led a life full of art: Born in New Zealand in 1895, she studied painting at school and worked as an actress, interior decorator and theatrical producer in London and New Zealand. In between all of these activities, she wrote more than 30 detective novels from 1934 to 1982, the year of her death. All feature the London-based detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a swanky gentleman (his mother was a Lady) whom Marsh named for the Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn. In her lifetime and beyond, Marsh was acclaimed as one of the “Queens of Crime” in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (roughly, the 1930s and ‘40s), alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham.
It might have been wiser to start at the beginning with Inspector Alleyn — that would have been 1934’s “A Man Lay Dead” — but alas, I am not always wise. The volume I picked up started with the irresistibly titled “Death in a White Tie,” the seventh book of the series, written in 1938. And while I’ll confess that my enthusiasm waned toward the end of the book’s nearly 300 small-print pages (few mystery authors — Elizabeth George comes to mind — can sustain that kind of length), Marsh’s writing is a pleasure. I was very much all-in by the opening list of The Characters in the Tale, which named everyone in the book along with brief descriptors such as “a relic of Victorian days,” “social climber,” “a man about town,” “an eccentric old lady” and others. This was enormously helpful and I wish all books would do this.
The plot, set among a group of socialites during the London Season, is exactly what one expects from a Golden Age of Detective Fiction novel — someone’s dead, someone’s investigating and all of the rooms are very nicely decorated — but Marsh smoothly steps us through the crime, the clues and the characters, with some delicious description (“Withers was the sort of man who breaths vulgarity into good clothes”), an ongoing subplot love story involving Alleyn and the artist Agatha Troy, and a central character who goes by the very twee nickname of Bunchy. (How posh is this book? So posh that Benedict Cumberbatch is the reader of the audiobook version.) Not sure how quickly I’ll move on to the next two books in the volume (“Overture to Death,” and “Death at the Bar,” the latter of which sounds like the end of a very bad night), but I enjoyed getting to know Marsh — and Alleyn.
A few follow-ups on last month’s column on Unreliable Lady Thrillers (i.e. “Gone Girl” and the like, in which the narrator might know some things we don’t): An editor sent me a paperback of South Korean author You-Jeong Jeong’s “The Good Son,” calling it an entry in the Unreliable Gentleman Thrillers category, and it’s on my list for next month. Translated by Chi-Young Kim and an acclaimed bestseller in Korea, it’s the tale of a young man who awakes to find his mother’s murdered body — but, because he suffers from a seizure disorder, he doesn’t remember what happened that night. Sounds intriguing! I shall report back. Anyone have any other Unreliable Gentleman Thrillers to recommend?
And, on recommendation from a reader, I read Fiona Barton’s “The Widow,” another ULT about a woman whose late husband may or may not have committed a notorious crime. The book has a rave on its front cover from none other than Stephen King (who tosses out the catnippy phrase, “If you liked ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The Girl on the Train’ …”). It’s the 2016 debut novel from Barton, a former journalist with a fondness for simple titles (her follow-up books are “The Child” and “The Suspect”) and a gift for writing propulsive suspense.
I can’t say I loved “The Widow” — it gets into some repellently dark waters — but I respected Barton’s craft, her careful structure and her surprisingly poignant central character, a woman both passive and knowing. It was a book I had to finish, late at night, just to find out who’d done it — which is, of course, why we read mysteries in the first place. Sometimes, the arrival matters more than the journey.