Tuesday, May 17, 2016


ENTER A MURDERER by Ngaio Marsh (1935)

Reviewed by Shane Donald

The script of the Unicorn Theatre's new play uncannily echoes a quarrel in the star's dressing room. And the stage drama gets all too real when charming Felix Gardener shoots his blustering rival, Arthur Surbonardier, dead-with a gun Arthur himself loaded with blanks. Or did he? How the live bullets got there, and why, make for a convoluted case that pits Inspector Roderick Alleyn against someone who rates an Oscar for a murderously clever performance.

There sometimes seems to be two schools of thought with regard to Ngaio Marsh’s work; the novels set in New Zealand are her best work, while her novels set in England are very much of their time. They depict a world of country houses, idle aristocrats and servants who do little within the world of the novels except to move the plot along. The novels set in England lack the critique of society apparent in stories such as Vintage Murder, which is set in New Zealand and examines Pakeha and Maori race relations, while also being a good example of the clue-puzzle genre in which the reader knows just as much as the detective and, therefore, has the same chance of solving the crime.

Enter a Murderer is the first novel set in the theatrical world that Marsh knew so well. In her youth she had been a touring actress and that shows in the degree of detail used to describe staging and the rivalries of the actors. Felix Gardener and Arthur Surbonadier are actors who competed for the same part, with Gardener winning the leading role, while Surbonadier plays a lesser character. During the play, Gardener has to shoot Surbonadier. The gun used as a prop been tampered with and blanks replaced with real bullets. Inspector Roderick Alleyn is in the audience and witnesses the death of Arthur Surbonadier. Who loaded the gun with real bullets and why?

This is the second outing for Roderick Alleyn and it’s fair to say that Marsh was still working out what kind of character she wanted him to be. Her stated aim was to create a detective free of the quirks of Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey. She wanted to depict a detective who was a professional policeman; however, like Wimsey she makes him an aristocrat (though far less facetious than Sayers’ creation) and this serves to remind modern-day readers that this is a detective novel from the Golden Age. Alleyn has the trappings of other fictional detectives of the time such as wealth and social position though this is used by him to gain access to the upper echelons of society who fear talking to the police. It does slightly undermine Marsh’s claim to realism but the time devoted to showing the procedures that Alleyn and his team follow, as police employees, differs from other examples in the genre such as Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion. Campion is an aristocrat and amateur detective who seems to detect for amusement, rather than as a job.

So is Enter a Murder a good novel? I would say yes, though with some reservations. It must be remembered that Marsh wrote 32 novels with Alleyn as her protagonist. This is but the second. There is a lack of depth to some characters in the story and as a clue-puzzle, working out who the killer is is fairly easy. However, it is an entertaining read and gives some insight into a time and place that no longer exists. It is sometimes forgotten that Nagio Marsh is New Zealand’s best-selling novelist by quite some way and the novels set in New Zealand in the 1940s are good examples of social-realist writing, set within the confines of genre fiction. Marsh’s work is still in print and has most recently been re-released by Harper in omnibus editions with three novels per edition. In the 1990s, The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries was also screened by the BBC, with Patrick Malahide taking the role of Alleyn. While no episodes were based on the New Zealand-set novels, the stories chosen remain largely faithful to the originals. However, it has to be said – Patrick Malahide looks nothing like the Roderick Alleyn described in the novels…For the curious reader, I recommend taking a look.

Shane Donald is a New Zealander living in Taiwan. An avid reader with 3,000 books in his home, he completed a dissertation on Ngaio Marsh for his MA degree, and also has a PhD in applied linguistics. 


  1. Alleyn is barely an "aristocrat" - his brother is a baronet, very low down the aristocratic food chain. Alleyn in his early years was horribly facetious – as is the character played by Felix Gardner in the play-within-a-book.

  2. I am working my way through Marsh's series, hoping to do it in chronological order. I just finished _Enter a Murderer_ last week. I also thought the development of the secondary characters a bit weak but still found it an enjoyable read overall. I have seen the Malahide BBC versions and really wasn't happy with his portrayal of Alleyn, although no where near as bad as whatisname's portrayal of Elizabeth George's Lynley.