You can do a lot of celebrating with a jereboam of champagne. The giant bottle, four times the "normal" size of a bottle of wine, was to be the centerpiece of a theatrical birthday party. Instead, it became a murder weapon. Fortunately for the New Zealand authorities, one of the witnesses to the entire sorry affair was an English detective - Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard. And that proved to be most unfortunate for someone who had carefully plotted what must have seemed like a perfect murder.
In essence, that's the story told in Vintage Murder, by Ngaio Marsh. First published in 1937, the fifth book in Marsh's long series of mysteries starring Detective Inspector Alleyn, it is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
In "Vintage Murder," we are introduced to the members of the Carolyn Dacres Comedy Company, a small but mostly successful English theater company which, at the time of this novel, is on tour, traveling to a town in New Zealand for a series of performances. Riding in the same compartment of the train with members of the theater group is Scotland Yard detective Roderick Alleyn, who is traveling on holiday through the area while recovering from surgery.
Tensions are running high among some of the members of the company. Alleyn, despite his efforts to avoid any possible involvement, finds himself present at a birthday party held onstage after a performance of the show for the company's leading lady. During the course of the party, arrangements have been made for a jereboam of champagne to be lowered gently from the flies above the stage, as a surprise. Instead, it comes crashing down, killing the person sitting underneath it.
Despite Alleyn's reluctance, he finds himself advising the local police in their investigation - for he, and they, quickly determine that it was no accident. And, among the limited field of suspects, it is up to Alleyn to identify the villain.
There is a great deal to enjoy in Vintage Murder. Ngaio Marsh, in addition to her writing, held a "day job" as producer/director for a successful New Zealand acting troupe, and her mysteries placed in theatrical settings are among her best works. She is wonderful at evoking character in a few lines. For example, here is how she describes one of the character actors in the company:
"Old Brandon Vernon looked a little the worse for wear. The hollows under his cheek bones and the lines round his eyes seemed to have made one of those grim encroachments to which middle-aged faces are so cruelly subject. A faint hint of a rimy stubble broke the smooth pallor of his chin; his eyes, in spite of their look of sardonic impertinence, were lackluster and tired. Yet when he spoke one forgot his age, for his voice was quite beautiful, deep, and exquisitely modulated. He was one of that company of old actors that are only found in the West End of London. They still believe in using their voices as instruments, they speak without affectation, and they are indeed actors."
As a New Zealander, and a theatrical producer, Marsh was writing about the things and people she knew and loved. That comes across very strongly in Vintage Murder. It has been republished by the Felony & Mayhem Press. It is highly recommended.
Vintage Murder is another of my entries in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, in the category, "Staging the Crime." If you haven't been checking the challenge, you are missing some great reading - it's not too late to start!