Monday, October 19, 2015



Reviewed by Andrea Thompson

Imagine feeling particularly diabolical, and deciding that you will invite to your home a group of people who don’t get along at all, including former couples who have gone through bad break-ups, business competitors, romantic rivals, and some of the most dysfunctional family members you’ve ever met. To make the set-up even more intolerable, you don’t let any of them know that the others are invited, and you ask them all to stay not just for dinner, but for an entire weekend.

This is what Jonathan Royal does in Death and the Dancing Footman, motivated by boredom and a desire to see how far he can manipulate all of his guests. To complicate matters, a snowstorm descends on the village where Jonathan lives, isolating these bitter enemies and trapping them together in the house. With such a tense set-up, the surprise is not so much that someone is murdered, but that anyone’s left alive when the weekend is over.

The premise of the story is attention-getting; however, this turned out to be my least favourite of the Alleyn books that I have read so far. Somehow it lacked the level of wicked humour that I’ve enjoyed in other books by Marsh. As well, I felt it suffered from the fact that the urbane Inspector Alleyn is not present for much of the story. While it’s not unusual for Marsh to take quite a bit of time to set up the situation before Alleyn enters, it just didn’t feel as effective here. Alleyn’s fellow policemen Fox, Thompson, and Bailey are also just on the periphery of the action, and I missed the often amusing exchanges between Fox and Alleyn. In addition to all of those faults, the mystery itself seemed thin.

However, even a weaker Alleyn book is worth reading, if just for Marsh’s descriptive skills. Although Jonathan is the eccentric host, much of the story is told from the point of view of Aubrey Mandrake, a playwright who has managed to move up in the world as a result of his success with writing, and whose inner reflections on his “common” origins are appealing. Marsh’s characterizations of all of the guests are as sharp as ever, with the terribly dysfunctional Compline family perhaps portrayed with the most complexity. Marsh is a very visual writer, and her detailed descriptions of snow on a window, or of cold rain falling outside, were evocative.

This book was written during WWII, set just before the Blitz had really begun, and the sections of the book that really worked for me were connected with this. A couple of the characters are European refugees, and there are some revealing observations about the way they respond to a police presence. And Alleyn spends some time pensively reflecting on the fact that he is so carefully tracking down one murderer, at a time when so many young men are dying by violence, before pulling himself together and continuing to do his job, no matter how turbulent the times are.


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

1 comment:

  1. She was back on form with this one. I love Aubrey/Stanley! Some call this book a "cozy" - as you say, one of the least cosy of setups. Cruel to bring together Mrs Compline and Dr Hart.