A Man Lays Dead

By Ngaio Marsh; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

Invitations to Sir Hubert Handesley’s “unique and delightfully original” house-parties at Frantock are sought-after and envied.

Fortunately for gossip columnist Nigel Bathgate, his cousin Charles Rankin, a regular visitor to Frantock and a connoisseur of house-parties, has gotten him invited for the first time.

The guests expected include Dr. Foma Tokareff, from Sir Hubert’s days at the Petrograd embassy; archeologist Arthur Wilde and his wife Marjorie; Sir Hubert’s niece Angela North; and the beautiful Rosamund Grant.

The entertainment for the evening is going to be a game called “Murders.” As the hosts explain to the guests, one among them will secretly be given a red placard by Vassily, the butler. That means the recipient is the “murderer.” He or she, at the time or place of his or her choosing, will tell another guest, “you’re the corpse.” The lights will go off and the gong in the downstairs hall will be rung. Everyone must freeze where they are for two minutes before going to find the “corpse.”

Then a “trial” will be held to determine who the murderer is. All guests can ask each other questions to help solve the case.

Only this evening, when the lights go out and the gong sounds, the guests come downstairs to find — not a pretend corpse — but a real one.

Charles’ body is discovered on the floor by a table near the gong. An ancient Russian-Mongolian dagger that he had been showing off earlier is jutting out between his shoulder blades.

There are plenty of suspects here. Sir Hubert himself was excited about the dagger when Charles showed it off earlier. Hubert is a passionate and obsessive collector of archaic weapons and owns one of the finest collections in England.

The two Russians in the house, Dr. Tokareff and Vassily the butler, were disapproving. Charles claimed that it was sent to him by a man he rescued from a crevasse while climbing in Switzerland. Tokareff and Vassily agree that the dagger is a ritual object used by an ancient, secret Russian society. Its possession by an outsider is dangerous.

Arthur notes that the stabbing of an unknown Pole in Soho was recently in the news. Rumors are circulating that he was the victim of a secret society.

Charles had been toying with the affections of Marjorie and Rosamund. Both wanted commitment from him. Both were unhappy about his dalliance with the other.

And, of course, Arthur, the cheated on husband might have wanted revenge.

Chief Inspector-Detective Roderick Allen of the Metropolitan Police is sent to investigate.

Despite being a murder mystery, there’s something calming and peaceful about this country house murder novel. There’s a limited circle of suspects, all seem equally likely — or unlikely. The reader can follow Allen’s questions and deduce along with him who the killer was.

Everything’s neatly tied up in the end: killer caught, other parties absolved of suspicion and the less-than-admirable Charles gone from the world.

Ngaio Marsh — and some of her critics — suggest that this story is a predictable rendering of an old standard in the world of mysteries. I think Marsh is more talented than most writers of such mysteries. Her stories do get better as she grows as a writer. Even here, though, her characters aren’t cartoonish. Charles Rankin, the victim, has a blend of aging-man-about-town and cad to him.

There are unbelievable aspects to this story. But Marsh does an excellent job of capturing a particular time in British history when people knew their class and behaved accordingly.

This is a great book for reading after the tumult of the holidays when the days are still winter dark and cold.

If you like manor house mysteries, you might enjoy MURDER FOR CHRISTMAS.

The Author: Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982)

A MAN LAYS DEAD was the first novel Ngaio Marsh wrote, although she had written plays and short stories before. She started the book in 1931 after reading a detective story by Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers on a wet weekend in London. She wondered whether she could write something similar.

This was also the introduction of Chief Inspector-Detective Roderick Alleyn.

Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, Edith Ngaio Marsh is known as one of the Queens of Crime from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham.

The Ngaio Marsh Award is given annually to the Best New Zealand mystery, crime and thriller fiction writing.

Over the course of her career, she wrote 32 detective novels, all of which featured Roderick Alleyn. All of the novels are set in England except for four which are set in New Zealand.

She was appointed a Dame Comannder of the Order of the British Empire in 1966. In 1978, she received the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement as a detective novelist from the Mystery Writers of America.

#NgaioMarsh #JeannetteHartman #amanlaydead


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