I’ve been reading mysteries ever since I was about eleven or twelve years old, and I’ve been friends with the Queens of Crime nearly that long. I started with Agatha Christie, blazed through at least three-quarters of her mysteries, and then stumbled upon Margery Allingham and the joys of Albert Campion and Lugg. When I finally discovered Dorothy Sayers, I had found my joy, my crown. I more or less stopped looking for twenty years.
So I suppose that’s how I managed to read squillions of mysteries over the years (yes, “squillions” is a technical term, and if you force me, I can prove it) and never read one single book by the fourth Queen of Crime, Ngaio Marsh. I know! Shocking! I finally decided to redress this injustice and begin at the beginning with her very first mystery, a purely typical country-house murder called A Man Lay Dead.
Oh what a pleasure it was! The characters are engaging, the dialogue is witty enough to be called banter, and there is (oh joy) a subplot about mad Bolshevik Russians and their secret brotherhoods. The murder itself is tricky, but not totally unsolvable, and Marsh doesn’t make the rookie mistake of forcing us to suspect each person in turn. It is a lovely, lovely puzzle, filled with beautiful little set-pieces.
But the best part of all is the detective, Roderick Alleyn. It occurred to me straightaway that I don’t believe any of the other Queens wrote about a police detective. Lord Peter, of course, is an aristocrat, and so is Albert Campion, even if secretly; Miss Marple stumbles across crimes, and Hercule Poirot is a private detective. But Detective Chief Inspector Alleyn is something different. He’s no one’s idea of a plod. He’s educated at all the right schools, he’s connected, he’s intelligent, he’s got empathy and a sense of humor and a set of nerves — but he’s authorized to be there, and he’s going to find out who killed Charles Rankin, like it or not.
Well, I liked it. I liked Alleyn immensely. I suspect that he will never be my true love (that is reserved for Lord Peter and Lord Peter alone among the stars in the firmament) but I think that he and I are destined to develop rather a nice relationship. I’m going to read Enter a Murderer next, and see what he has in store for me.