Set in the early part of the year in a snow-bound Dorset, Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman sees Jonathan Royal invite a houseparty of guests who are guaranteed to get along spectacularly badly. He has chosen his poet/playwright friend, Aubrey Mandrake, to be a spectator at this “Big Brother House” set-up, which includes Mrs Compline, her face ruined by botched plastic surgery, the surgeon who had spent the last 20 years hiding from his handiwork, the two Compline brothers William and Nicholas, and the girl who was engaged to one and then the other, plus two female rivals who ran beauty parlours.
As the snow comes down, the party are trapped at Highfold Manor, and it is not long before the guests turn, first to attempted murder, then an actual killing. Each is suspicious of the other, ready to betray the other, and as the tension mounts, Mandrake catalogues the alibis of each. It all hangs on the evidence of Thomas, the footman who was dancing in the hallway to the strains of “Hands, Knees and Boomps-a-daisy.”
This was written in 1942 and is very evidently a war novel. A character opens his window after dark, then remembers the black-out. Talk of war is forbidden after dinner, as too depressing, and when the murderer is finally revealed, the detective Roderick Alleyn feels strongly how ironic it is to hang an individual when elsewhere people are being killed wholesale. Alleyn only appears towards the end, the snow having prevented anyone sending for help for several days, so we see much of the story from Mandrake’s point of view. I was surprisingly engaged, having not read Marsh for many years. There are some interesting plot twists, and a rising pitch of tension up to the end. On my “Keep and Re-Read” pile.
Just the Facts Ma’am Challenge – Gold/ What/Reference to man or woman in the title
I know what you’re thinking – she skipped a week. Last week I read “The Buzzard Table” by Margaret Maron, in her Deborah Knott series. Moran was new to me, but according to the blurb is huge in the US – which had me wondering why I hadn’t come across her before. As soon as I opened the book to find a family tree with two sets of identical twins, I realised. Family saga, with a crime loosely attached. Family sagas haven’t been popular here since…before I was born, pretty much. I wasn’t the right audience for this.
So instead, I transported myself to Sancerre on a hot August day where the perspiring Inspector Maigret is investigating the mysterious death in a hotel room of the travelling salesman M. Gallet. His colleague Inspector Nevers says, “You don’t know what the countryside’s like, Inspector! You may well be able to find nastier characters here than among the dregs of Paris.” And so he does.
There are many questions to answer: why is there such a great social gap between the not-very-grieving widow and her dead husband? Why was he shot and stabbed? Why did he insist on a room overlooking the “nettle lane”, and what happened to the key? And why was his son in the same town?
A slower, but no less vicious age, and I miss the days when crime fiction was allowed to be short, not measured by the yard. In this, every word counts. I’m glad Penguin is re-issuing them all in new translations. I suspect I’m going to be creating a bit more shelf space for some of the later ones. (Even though my father has the full set bar one, painfully tracked down book by book in the pre-internet era – I think he may be writing to Penguin to tell them to hurry up and release the volume he doesn’t have.)
Sad to hear that Robert Barnard has passed on to the great library in the sky. He was a prolific crime author, and while he was perhaps not as well known as he deserved to be, he wrote some excellent country crime novels among all his other works.
His obituary in the Daily Telegraph gives an idea of his range. He was a master of the pastiche, and he leaves a sad gap in the ranks of crime authors.