Vintage murder indeed! Dame Ngaio Marsh, one of the four great 'Queens of Crime' of the mid-twentieth-century (the other three are Christie, Allingham and Sayers), wrote this book in 1936 and I have to say it I thought it one of her best. Dame Ngaio was born and raised in New Zealand and spent a number of years as an actress -- and this novel is about a theatre company touring New Zealand! So she is really coming home with a vengeance. Indeed it is the authentic detail that I found so attractive in this book. The story begins with her great detective, Roderick Alleyn, on a train journey in New Zealand, a country he is visiting for the first time, on a holiday to recuperate from an operation. With him on the train -- as they have also been on the boat from England (no long-haul flights here) -- is a touring theatre company. Thrown together with them for so long, Alleyn has struck up a friendship with the leading players, the beautiful Carolyn Dacre and her leading man Hailey Hambledon. Hailey has loved Carolyn for many years, but she is married to the company manager, the rather dull and plain Alfred Meyer. An adoring husband, Meyer has thought up a tremendous surprise for Carolyn -- for her birthday party, to be held on the stage at their first venue, he has fixed up a contraption in the theatre flies which, when Carolyn cuts a red ribbon, will enable a jeroboam of vintage champagne to slowly descend into a flowery basket in the centre of the table. I'm sure you can see where this is going! Despite at least twelve successful try-outs during the day, when the ribbon is cut on the night the huge champagne bottle drops with terrifying speed and lands on Meyer's head, with obvious and horrid results. Alleyn, who has been trying to remain incognito, is drawn into the resulting murder investigation which, needless to say, he finally solves with his usual intelligence and aplomb.
This novel has a lot going for it. Being a one-time theatre person myself, I loved the period theatre detail and the wonderful types who make up the touring company. But above all it was wonderful to find Dame N writing about New Zealand, which she does with the most obviously deep love. In fact she conveyed to me the magic and mystery of the landscapes more successfully than the Lord of the Rings film did, and that made them look pretty attractive. I loved the way she showed Alleyn getting drawn in to deeper and deeper admiration and awe as he started to explore the countryside -- and, as this is an early book (so he has not yet encountered Troy, his wife to be in later novels), also starting to fall in love with the beautiful Carolyn. There is even a great Maori character, Dr Rangi te Pohika, whose disquisitions on his nation's heritage are fascinating both the Alleyn and to the reader. And a small religious object, a tiki, plays a vital part in the unravelling of the plot.
For my money, though Dame N writes rather better than Dame Agatha, I don't find her plots quite measure up to Christie's -- the denouement was OK but not as startling as any of AC's. But that was not the point. It was an enthralling read, and I gobbled it up in a day.