First published in 1935 Enter a Murderer was the second novel to feature Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Over the last few years I have read quite a number of Marsh’s Alleyn novels, but I don’t think it matters that I haven’t been reading them in the right order. This novel finds us in Ngaio Marsh’s beloved theatre – a world she was very much at home in and which played an important part in her life. Several of Nagio Marsh’s novels have a theatrical setting; a setting I do think suits a murder mystery beautifully. Although she was the author of something like thirty detective novels, the theatre was Ngaio Marsh’s first love. As both an actress and a producer, she was instrumental in reviving the New Zealand public interest in the theatre.
“His face reflected, horribly, the surprise on Surbonadier’s. He stood looking foolishly at the gun in his hand and then let it fall to the floor. He turned, bewildered, and peering at the audience as though asking a question. He looked at the stage exits as if he meditated an escape.”
Nephew of an unsavoury theatre owner, Jacob Saint, slimy Arthur Surbonadier is a good but not especially gifted actor, he has ambition however, ambition he wants his uncle to help him realise. Already trying to manipulate his fellow cast members to his own advantage, Surbonadier now turns his hand to blackmail as he attempts to secure for himself what he considers to be a better role.
A week into the run of Jacob Saint’s production of The Rat and the Beaver at the Unicorn theatre, journalist Nigel Bathgate invites his friend Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn to accompany him to an evening at the theatre, meeting some of the cast before the show. One particular scene in the play requires some careful choreography as a shot from the wings must be heard at the exact moment a gun is apparently fired into the chest of Surbonadier’s character onstage. While backstage, before the evening’s performance, Alleyn overhears discussion about the dummy bullets, he is also witness to Surbonadier’s unpleasant drunkenness and the atmosphere between him and his fellow cast members. Playing the part of the man who holds the gun is Felix Gardener, a friend of Nigel Bathgate’s and Surbonadier’s rival for the attentions of beautiful leading lady Stephanie Vaughan. So when the shot is fired onstage at the end of the play, and Surbonadier is found to be really dead, it is Nigel’s friend, actor Felix Gardener who is holding the smoking gun. Having moments earlier been sat in the audience, Alleyn is immediately propelled into investigation, with young Bathgate riding shotgun.
“The rest of the cast followed in turn. Barclay Crammer gave a good all-round performance of a heart-broken gentleman of the old school. Janet Emerald achieved the feat known to leading ladies as ‘running through the gamut of emotions.’ Asked to account for the striking discrepancies between her statement and those of Miss Max and the stage manager, she wept unfeignedly and said her heart was broken. The coroner stared at her coldly, and told her she was an unsatisfactory witness. Miss Deamer was youthfully sincere, and used a voice with an effective little broken gasp. Her evidence was supremely irrelevant. The stage manager and Miss Max were sensible and direct. Props looked and behaved so precisely like a murderer, that he left the box in a perfect gale of suspicion. Trixie Beadle struck the ‘I was an innocent girl’ note, but was obviously frightened and was treated gently.”
There certainly appears to be a number of people with a good motive for getting rid of the odious Surbonadier, among both cast and backstage hands. Alleyn has a complex case to investigate, in which he was also a witness, Alleyn is ably assisted as ever by the marvellous Inspector Fox (who we don’t see quite enough of in this one).
Ngaio Marsh is a very good novelist, her mysteries, on the whole are excellent, and this isn’t the first of her books set in the theatre I have read, Enter a Murderer is good too, but it isn’t her best. I found myself irritated by Nigel Bathgate, more so in this one than in other novels where he has trailed along after Alleyn. The denouement is satisfactorily difficult to work out, but for me it was the brilliantly portrayed theatrical setting which remains the star in this early Marsh novel.