This is the fourth of Ngaio Marsh’s detective novels starring DI Roderick Alleyn, the smooth, nobly-born, well-educated man who actually works for the police force rather than being a private detective who generously contributes his services. I have to say that I like this arrangement: it is, in a way, the best of both the police-procedural and the amateur-aristocratic-sleuth world.
Death in Ecstasy is a shocking case that takes place in the Temple of the Sacred Flame, a nasty little London back-street cult. It’s run by Father Jasper Garnette, who has smooth oratory and drugs on his side, and who likes to tell the shapely ladies in his congregation that they are Sacred Vessels, and that Blessed Union will Elevate them to a Higher Spiritual Plane. When one of these Sacred Vessels, Miss Cara Quayne, dies at the moment of highest elevation, however, it turns out that it’s not ecstasy but cyanide that killed her, and that everyone at the ceremony must be investigated.
This is a nice, neat little mystery, and it’s a setup I haven’t often seen. I’ve seen a couple of mysteries within religious communities (convents or monasteries) but not much in the way of non-mainstream groups like this, where loyalty to a head figure creates a hothouse atmosphere that can be quite unhealthy. Marsh takes potshots in this mystery not only at religion, but at Americans (her American is a ludicrous caricature), at other mystery authors, at the French, and at journalists. The dialogue is enjoyable, especially with the loyal Sergeant Fox. (The best part was when Sergeant Fox was trying to follow the conversation with the Frenchman because he’d been listening to lessons on the radio.) The mystery is tidy and the conclusion is satisfying.
Unfortunately, I almost abandoned it a chapter in because of the vicious homophobia. There are two gay characters who are so thoroughly and nastily slurred and defamed that it makes the book almost totally unreadable. It’s one thing to notice a slightly-off comment in a novel from the 1930s and say that we wouldn’t say it the same way now; this is something completely… else, and ugly. Silver lining: at least the gay characters are summarily dismissed from the list of suspects because they “wouldn’t have the guts” to kill someone? Okay, that’s not a silver lining. If you don’t want to read this, I wouldn’t blame you, and I’m wondering if I want to read any more of these either — when I’m looking for a good detective novel, I don’t want a slap in the face. Plenty more detective fish in the mysterious sea.