Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) is called one of the Queens of Crime, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham. She published 32 books featuring Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard. Marsh started out as an actor and was deeply involved in drama productions in her New Zealand home. Her interest in theatre had a way of slipping into her mysteries; her experience gives the parts of the stories set in playhouses unmistakable authenticity.
Much has been written about her work; for instance, see Mike Grost’s insightful essay here: http://mikegrost.com/ngmarsh.htm#Marsh. And Neil Nyren’s essay written for CrimeReads here: https://crimereads.com/ngaio-marsh-a-crime-readers-guide-to-the-classics/.
I discovered Marsh years ago after galloping through most of Christie. I read all of them, sometimes discovering I’d obtained the same book under two different titles in my attempt to read every single one. A few of them remain among my all-time favorites and are subject to periodic re-visiting. One of them is Night at the Vulcan, published in the U.S. by Little, Brown in 1951. It was published in the UK as Opening Night by Collins earlier in the same year. Not mentioned when her best mysteries are debated, it is nonetheless one of my suggestions when someone asks where to start reading Marsh.
Martyn Tarne, a budding actress newly arrived in London from New Zealand, stops at the recently renovated Vulcan Theatre in her quest for work. Two days before opening night, the leading lady’s dresser has been taken to hospital that afternoon and Martyn offers to take her place. She finds she’s wandered into a bit of a war zone. The leading lady’s husband, who also appears in the play, insisted on casting his niece in a key part, even though she is not at all suited to it. Everyone has taken sides and the wrangling never stops. Shortly before the play opens, the niece dissolves into hysterics and refuses to go on. A scene from every actor’s dream plays out: Martyn is pushed on stage in her place and performs brilliantly.
When the curtain falls, all the actors gather to take their final bow, except for the husband who has locked himself in his dressing room. After the door is broken down, he’s found dead next to a gushing gas tap. Enter Alleyn and his team. What appeared to be suicide is soon shown to be murder.
I really like this book but it isn’t for the mystery: The motive is unclear until the very end, although there are hints that perhaps all is not as it should be, and most of the potential suspects were in clear view of the audience at the time the murder was committed. It isn’t for the detailed police investigation; Alleyn appears for the first time more than halfway through the book. In a story that encompasses about three days, he is present only a short time. In contrast to the leisurely unfolding of the lead to the crime, Alleyn’s investigation is wrapped up in a few hours.
The characters, though, are wonderfully engaging. It’s impossible not to root for Martyn, who is something of a Cinderella in search of fame. The detail and the backstage action are portrayed so sharply and clearly that they pull the reader into another world. In addition to the theatre setting, there is also a minor plot thread dealing with genealogy and I love genealogy. In fact, it’s a good story well told. Recommended!