Ngaio Marsh is regarded by many readers as being one of the Golden Age "Mystery Queens," whose books helped to popularize the genre. It's worth noting, however, that many of her books were, in fact, written and published long after the end of the Golden Age (if you accept the general guidelines saying the age roughly coincided with the years between the two world wars of the twentieth century). One of my favorites, reviewed during the first weeks of the Classic Mysteries podcast more than nine years ago, was Killer Dolphin, which was published in 1967. Here's a slightly edited version of my review:
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A very theatrical murder – in more ways than one – and the theft of a priceless Shakespearean relic form the centerpiece of Killer Dolphin, by Ngaio Marsh.
Welcome to Classic Mysteries, a program of reviews of fine mystery novels worth reading and rereading. I’m Les Blatt.
Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealander, with a long and distinguished reputation in her home country for her work as a producer and director in the theater, particularly for her outstanding productions of Shakespearean plays. Outside New Zealand, however, she is far better known as one of the outstanding mystery authors of the 20th century.
Between 1934 and 1982, she wrote 32 novels and a number of short stories featuring Scotland Yard detective Roderick Alleyn. Most of the novels are set in England, although in a few of them Alleyn does his detecting in New Zealand. More than a few of her novels have a theatrical background reflecting her professional and personal passion for the theater.
One of them – and a favorite of mine – is the novel Killer Dolphin. That was the American title; the British title, a bit less sensational perhaps, was Death at the Dolphin. It is a strange story. A young playwright visits the bombed-out shell of the Dolphin Theater, a casualty of the German bombing of London during World War Two. The young man accidentally falls through a hole in the stage into a pit filled with water. His life is saved by the intervention of a mysterious man, who turns out to be a fabulously rich businessman. The businessman ultimately buys the Dolphin and hires the playwright to help restore it and to write a play for its reopening. If that seems like unusual behavior, you’re quite right – but there are very good reasons for it, which will not be revealed until the very end of the novel.
There is another thread here: the businessman reveals that he is in possession of a child’s glove – one which apparently was made by Shakespeare’s father for Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, whose early death was one of the great tragedies in the playwright’s life. It is, of course, enormously valuable – not just for its monetary worth, but also as an inspiration for our young author, who decides to use the glove as the centerpiece of his play for the reopening of the Dolphin.
But there is a great deal more going on here. The theatrical company assembled to produce the play has more than its share of internal jealousies and disputes. Soon, there is a murder, another member of the cast is badly injured and the priceless glove is stolen.
Enter our detective, Roderick Alleyn, a detective whom I admire wholeheartedly. Over the years and the course of 32 novels, Alleyn ages quite gracefully and grows in rank and wisdom. He is a man with a deep appreciation of art and culture, a “gentleman,” in the British sense of that term. His wife, whom he meets, courts and marries over the course of several novels, is a noted and talented painter – for Marsh was also deeply interested in the fine arts.
Unlike many other fictional detectives of the Golden Age, Alleyn was a Scotland Yard man, with all the resources of the official police services at his disposal. Alleyn and his assistants begin to investigate the crime or crimes. Marsh generally does provide readers with the same clues seen by Alleyn – but she is less fanatical about producing a fair play puzzle for the reader than some other period authors. That’s all right. A great deal of Killer Dolphin – the actions and the motives – are rooted in her characters, who are, for the most part, rounded and believable, not just two-dimensional cutouts. Marsh puts her knowledge of theater, and theatrical tradition, to work here shaping a mystery (more than one, actually) that grows out of the very credible behavior of a troupe of actors and backstage people, not to mention the mysterious businessman who becomes so deeply involved in the story.
Her writing is delicious, and she often throws in a phrase or two that will delight and entice the reader. For example, in describing a party held in the theater for the actors and others involved with this show, she says:
“When he returned to the foyer it was to find that the party had attained its apogee. Its component bodies had almost all reached points farthest removed from their normal behaviour. Everybody was now obliged to scream if he or she wished to be heard and almost everybody would have been glad to sit down.”
That’s a fine description – I have been at an awful lot of gatherings precisely like that, and I suspect that you quite probably have as well.
Or the arrival of Alleyn at the theater after the murder and theft have been discovered. Marsh says:
“The constable had opened the pass-door in the main entrance and now admitted Superintendent Alleyn in the nearest he ever got to a filthy temper.”
Or a few pages later, Alleyn remarks that the press is “in full lurk” outside the theater – a marvelous way to describe it, some 40 years before celebrity journalism’s pursuit of Paris Hilton.
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Killer Dolphin is a well written, carefully crafted novel that just happens to be a tightly constructed mystery as well. The theatrical background is fascinating, the murder and other unpleasantries are well conceived and the characters are memorable. The book is in print, from Felony & Mayhem Press, and ought to be readily available through your favorite mystery book dealer.
If you would like to listen to the original podcast, click here.
Next week, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett.