by Ngaio Marsh
Series: Inspector Alleyn #14
Publication Date: December 1, 1947
Troy Alleyn, Inspector Roderick Alleyn's beautiful young wife, is engaged to paint a portrait of Sir Henry Ancred, famed Shakespearean actor and family patriarch, but she senses all is not well in the dreary castle of Ancreton. When old Henry is found dead after a suspicious dinner and an unfortunate family fracas, Troy enlists the impeccable aid of her husband to determine who among a cast of players would have a motive for murder -- and the theatrical gift to carry it out.
This was the second of my Ngaio Marsh October mystery trifecta. I have said elsewhere that I can’t pick a favorite, but that’s a lie. This one was my favorite. The other two that I read were Night at the Vulcan (already reviewed) and Death at the Dolphin, and they were really good, but this one was just right up my alley.
That’s probably because I love the classic country house mystery, which is what this is, while I am rather lukewarm, as it turns out, on theater settings, which were featured in Night at the Vulcan and Death at the Dolphin. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy them, but they just weren’t so completely my jam.
If you are a fan of dysfunctional families with controlling patriarchs who end up being murdered, this is a good one! The similarities to the Leonides, from Crooked House, or the Lee family, from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, or the Herriards, from Envious Casca (which has been reprinted as A Christmas Party) by Georgette Heyer, are omnipresent.
Even with those similarities, Marsh keeps the mystery fresh, with some really interesting characters – many of whom share the word “poisonous” with the selected weapon of death. Cedric, the presumed heir is particularly unappealing. I mentally picture him looking like Cillian Murphy – physically attractive, but somehow still repellent (Murphy’s turn as Scarecrow in Batman Begins ruined him for me; sorry Cillian).
Plus, this book has the side-benefit of focusing – for the first 50% – on Alleyn’s very interesting and accomplished wife, Agatha Troy. She has found herself in the center of a deeply unpleasant series of family scenes, as she has agreed to paint a portrait of the aging, irascible patriarch. Inspector Alleyn has been absent in connection with his war work and is expected home shortly, and she is also worrying about whether they will be able to pick up the threads of their marriage. I really liked this element.
Well, the figure was completed. There were some further places she must attend to—a careful balancing stroke here and here. She was filled with a great desire that her husband should see it. It was satisfactory, Troy thought, that of the few people to whom she wished to show her work her husband came first. Perhaps this was because he said so little yet was not embarrassed by his own silence.
I feel like I know more about Alleyn after reading this book than in all of the prior books of the series that I’ve finished.