Thursday, November 26, 2015


GRAVE MISTAKE by Ngaio Marsh (1978)

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson 

Fifty-year-old Verity Preston lives in the small village of Upper Quintern, where she grew up. Although she spent much of her adult life working in theatre production, she returned to live in Upper Quintern five years previously, when her prosperous father died and left her his house. This has enabled Verity to live quite pleasantly, taking care of the house and writing plays, an occupation which has provided her with moderate success.

One of Verity’s oldest friends in the little village is Sybil Foster, a well-off, flirtatious widow, who is in many ways Verity’s opposite. Where Verity is quiet, detached, and observant, Sybil throws herself in the middle of things, loves to attract attention, and makes much of her various illnesses. As well as being outgoing, Sybil is a controlling, demanding woman, who has firm ideas about the potential marriage of her young daughter, Prunella.

As the story begins, the village is experiencing some shake-ups. The gardener used by many of the better-off residents has died unexpectedly, resulting in his replacement by a vigorous man whose last name is, fittingly, Gardener. As well, Nikolas Markos and his son Gideon have recently moved to Upper Quintern, and Gideon’s handsome looks are causing Sybil concern, as she feels Prunella is much too interested in the young man.

There is sort of a timeless mood to this Alleyn book. Although Marsh specifies that it is after WWII, it’s not clear exactly what year the book is set in. People are concerned with rising taxes and the difficulties in getting domestic help, and people’s fashions seems a bit groovy – Nikolas and Gideon are wearing velvet coats when they host a dinner party. But there is still a sharp distinction between working class and upper-middle class in the story.

As is typical of many of Marsh’s books, it takes quite some time for Alleyn to arrive, as the mystery is carefully set up with various plausible suspects. When Alleyn does show up in the village to investigate a murder, Verity is struck by how distinguished he is, and Alleyn also seems impressed by Verity’s common sense and integrity. Alleyn mixes, mostly smoothly, with his suspects – charming but persistent, polite but relentless. He is accompanied by his colleagues Fox, Thompson, and Bailey, who get busy interviewing, dusting for fingerprints, and taking photographs.

Possibly the strongest part of this later Marsh book is the dialogue, although the plot is good as well.  But the dialogue is fresh and energized. Many of the exchanges between characters are quite funny, particularly with the somewhat flighty Prunella, who tends to whisper rather than speak at a normal volume. And there is a very amusing scene towards the end of the story, when Alleyn winds up in a bar with a drunken doctor and nurse, trying to corral them into telling the truth.

Alleyn in the 1970s remains as reassuring, calm, reliable, and committed as he has been throughout the decades – always middle-aged, experienced, competent and smooth – and yet never losing sight of what is most important: catching the murderer and seeing justice done.


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. I find that scene quite repellent, and not very amusing at all. Book also contains hidden treasure, an unreliable layabout and dear Mr Ratisbon - reincarnated as his own son.