Wednesday, August 26, 2015


DEATH IN A WHITE TIE by Ngaio Marsh (1938)

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson

I’m slowly working my way through all of this wonderful series, reading in order for the most part. I was vaguely surprised when I realized that this book had been published in 1938, because there is nothing in it about World War Two looming on the horizon, and it’s set in London, England. However, as much as it’s set in the real world, this story also takes place, for the most part, in quite an enclosed world – the world of the British upper middle classes, with a focus on debutante daughters, in particular.

“The season” is happening in London, and mothers and grandmothers and aunts and patronesses are carefully grooming the young ladies in their lives to make their fresh, appealing appearances on the society scene, hopefully to make a good marriage match. There is a darker side to all of the parties and balls and concerts, however – a blackmailer is at work, and some of the women who are old enough to have histories that aren’t without scandal, are terrified of being found out.

When one of these women goes to Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn seeking help for her threatened “friend”, Alleyn enlists the aid of his friend Lord Robert Gospell, more familiarly known as “Bunchy”. Bunchy moves smoothly through high society circles, and begins to keep his eyes and ears open for the blackmailer.

Alleyn’s mother helps the investigation, as well as family friend Bunchy, and the relationship between Lady Alleyn and her son is interesting. This glimpse into a certain set of people in a certain era is also fascinating – one thing that happens during the course of the investigation is that Alleyn and his friend Detective Inspector Fox interview everyone’s servants about what day their silver is polished – a lifestyle that’s very difficult to imagine these days.

Marsh writes beautifully, so it’s simply a pleasure to read her descriptions of anything. She’s also extremely entertaining, and unflinching in her examination of various characters, from supposedly innocent young ladies to elderly tyrants.

I would call this a locked-room mystery, with a certain number of suspects who had access to commit the crime, so there is a good puzzle for those who read that way and like to try and solve the crime.

Alleyn has been enamoured of Agatha Troy, a talented painter, in a few books previous to this one, and their friendship progresses here, in a way that felt a bit clumsy to me.

I particularly liked the way that death is treated so seriously in the book, and the depth of the loss portrayed so carefully.


Andrea is an avid mystery reader from Ontario who loves crime fiction, both old and new, with a passion. She says she is drawn to mysteries because they focus on the search for truth. You can visit her Facebook book review page here

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