When I decided to take The Golden Girls Challenge in Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge at My Reader’s Block, Ngaio Marsh’s Vintage Murder was one of the first books to go on my reading list. Murder-by-Champagne-bottle sounded so darned classy. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the technical complexity of the mystery presented by Marsh, which made the book quite unique among the others I’ve read for this challenge.
The story is set in New Zealand – famed detective Roderick Alleyn is taking an extended holiday, apparently recovering from some surgery. He winds up sharing a train carriage with a troop of London actors, one of whom recognizes him from a previous case. They befriend him, inviting him to the opening night of their performance and the after-party, celebrating the birthday of company star, Carolyn Dacres. However the party comes to a frothy halt when the theatrically planned release of a jeroboam of Champagne is re-rigged to kill the party host, Dacres’ husband and the owner of the company, Alfred Meyer.
I admit was a bit concerned when the book started with both a diagram of the theater and an extensive list of characters. And I wasn’t wrong in figuring out what this meant – the mystery gave me a lot to track. Marsh apparently started her career in theater, and her extensive knowledge of stagecraft is the key to the murder, as well as its solution. Having no such knowledge, though, I had to go back over the details of the weights and counterweights used to raise and drop scenery more than once. But don't let that put you off. Marsh must have known that readers might find the arcane nature of the crime a bit off-putting, so she helps out the reader with some well-placed letters from Alleyn to his buddy Detective Inspector Fox at Scotland Yard.
Like many books from the time period, this book contains some disturbingly racist and colonialist elements. I’m still amazed by how easily characters in early 20th century novels discuss the inferiority of “brown” people and “colonials,” although I understand it represents the prevailing sentiment of the time – and I agree there’s value in remembering that. There’s particularly dreadful treatment in this book of an English-educated Maori physician, who’s referred to by a local policeman as “ninety per cent civilised.” – and it’s clearly meant to be a compliment. It really made me squirm.
That aside, I think this is a vintage mystery that many readers will love discovering again. I’d especially recommend it for those readers who enjoy a complicated plot. This was my first Ngaio Marsh title, and I definitely plan to read more of her works. So thanks once again to Bev at My Reader’s Block, the host of the Vintage Mystery Challenge. I’ve had a ton of fun with that challenge this summer!