Wednesday, March 2, 2016


DEATH IN ECSTASY by Ngaio Marsh (1936)

Reviewed by Guy Fraser-Sampson

When Cara Quayne dropped dead after drinking the ritual wine at the House of the Sacred Flame, she was having a religious experience of a sort unsuspected by the other initiates. Discovering how the fatal prussic acid got into the bizarre group's wine is but one of the perplexing riddles that confronts Scotland Yard's Inspector Roderick Alleyn when he's called to discover who killed this wealthy cult member.

It was a pleasure to be asked to review this book because it was not only the first Ngaio Marsh I ever read but also, I believe, the first ever detective story. I was about twelve years old at the time and Marsh, followed shortly by Dorothy L. Sayers, made a profound impression upon me. A few years later, as the wonders of the real adult world began to intrude upon my bookish existence I can remember being intensely puzzled as to why nobody seemed to smoke Turkish cigarettes, employ a manservant, or drive a Daimler-Benz.

A pleasure too in that I have vague recollections of not enjoying it as much as some which I read later but, having had an opportunity to re-visit it for the purpose of this review, I come away vastly reassured. It is a very fine book indeed, and I suspect that its weaknesses referred to by others have much to do not with its own merits but with where it sits in the canon.

The structure is classic. Twenty-five chapters, each of about three thousand words; is it significant that I attempt to use a similar form myself? Probably not. Every writer is shaped by what they read. One also encounters at the very beginning of the book two long-lost features of detective fiction: a map or plan of the crime scene and a list of dramatis personae. When did these ever go out of fashion, and why?

The story can be simply summarised. Attending on sudden impulse a religious service conducted in London’s West End by a bizarre cult, journalist Nigel Bathgate witnesses an attractive lady die an excruciating death of poisoning by cyanide while taking a somewhat pagan communion. Mayfair today seems so very much less exciting.

Knowing, as one does, a Detective Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard, to wit Rory Alleyn, Bathgate promptly telephones the great man who, pausing only to remove his silk dressing gown and summon ‘his people’, arrives at the crime scene to take charge of the investigation.

So, we have the traditional closed society, in this case the members of a cult. Given how quickly cyanide works, the murderer can only have been one of the eight or nine people who gathered in a circle and handled the chalice. The “what”, “where”, “how” and “when” are fixed. All that remain to be identified are the “who” and the “why”, which Alleyn inevitably manages to pull off with considerable aplomb.

This is undoubtedly a well-written, workmanlike crime novel. Its narrative is constrained by the standards of the age; sexual references were not allowed. Yet Marsh does a good job of making us aware of what was going on between at least two of the parties, as well as alluding explicitly to drug-taking and homosexuality. Were one reading it as a stand-alone novel then it has few inherent weaknesses. Except of course, that we are not. Dame Ngaio wrote over thirty novels and I, like most crime writers and readers, have devoured most of them. It is this collective vision of the series as a whole which raises a few problems concerning what was only the fourth in the sequence.

First, the central character, at least initially, is Bathgate, and he is described explicitly as Alleyn’s Watson. He is the sounding board for Alleyn’s ideas, his faithful shorthand note-taker, and the butt of Alleyn’s at times rather pretentious humour. This raises the second weakness of the book, which is that this is not the mature, well-rounded Alleyn of later books. The writer is still working the character out, and there are hints not only of Lord Peter Wimsey but also of the dreaded Roger Sheringham.

Marsh soon realised that Bathgate was not the way ahead, and dropped him gently by the roadside. This had the added benefit of increasing the airtime of ‘Brer’ Fox, Alleyn’s loyal and dependable side-kick, and of course the introduction of Agatha Troy is also a welcome later development. That Death in Ecstasy still works well despite these relative shortcomings, is a testament to its creator’s powers.

For me the most enjoyable part of the book is where Alleyn, Bathgate and Fox imagine themselves to be famous literary detectives such as Lord Peter Wimsey, and address the case as each such worthy might have done. It’s interesting that I have just pulled a similar stunt myself in Death in Profile, a deliberately similar title but a non-deliberately similar device. Did I really remember this unconsciously from forty years and several thousand books ago? Spooky.

Guy Fraser-Sampson is an author and investment specialist. He has written books on English cricket, business advice, and continued EF Benson's beloved Mapp and Lucia series. His latest novel, DEATH IN PROFILE, is released this month. It is his first crime novel, launching his Hampstead Murder series, described as "a love letter to detective fiction", blending contemporary and Golden Age. He will be appearing at Deal Noir on 2 April. 

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