It would be fair to say that the elaborate ritual being carried out that evening at the House of the Sacred Flame did not go as expected. The observers (including journalist Nigel Bathgate) certainly did not anticipate the death of one initiate who had somehow been poisoned with cyanide from the communal chalice being passed around the circle. There didn't seem to be any way that the wine in the chalice could have been poisoned - but it was. In order to figure out whodunit, Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn was going to have to figure out howdunit...and why. The story is told in Death in Ecstasy, by Ngaio Marsh, and it is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
Originally published in 1936, Death in Ecstasy was Ngaio Marsh's fourth novel to feature Alleyn. It begins with Nigel Bathgate looking out his window on a stormy night and noticing, for the first time, the swinging sign that announces the House of the Sacred Flame. He sees people walking up to the door of the church and walking in. Being bored - and being a journalist, who can often find an entertaining feature story in a religious cult - Bathgate goes out and talks his way into the church. That is why he is on hand later that evening, during a rather peculiar ritual for the cult's initiates, when one of the participants dies after drinking cyanide from the communal cup which had been passed around to all of them.
Bathgate's friend, Inspector Alleyn, takes over the case and finds himself forced to solve the question of exactly how that poison got into the cup and whether it was intended for a particular victim. He also finds remarkably little that is holy or sacred about the cult, and the disappearance of thousands of pounds' worth of bonds suggests there may be a far-from-holy motive for murder.
The book has a great many memorable characters, many of them fairly unpleasant. Some of them are quite politically incorrect; for example, there are a couple of characters very clearly intended to be gay (and to provide some degree of comic relief as well). They are treated as objects of scorn and derision, not surprising perhaps in a book of this type written during the 1930s, but quite likely to be offensive to some readers today.
I must admit that Death in Ecstasy is not my favorite Marsh book. I think that she handled the theme of murder among the members of a religious cult far better in a later novel, Spinsters in Jeopardy. Still, the plot of Death in Ecstasy is quite clever, many of the characters are quite presentable, and there are a fair number of clues carefully planted for the clever reader to spot. It's available in both paper and e-book formats from the Felony & Mayhem Press.
The 2015 Bingo Challenge
Continuing my participation in the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge. under way at the My Reader's Block blog, Death in Ecstasy is my entry for the square (fifth row, fourth column) calling for one book that involves the clergy or religion.