Part of the Ngaio Marsh million, one hundred thousand copies of each of ten books by Marsh published by Penguin Books in July 1949, this is one of the three books included that had not been published by Penguin prior to this collection. I have reviewed one of the other titles included, ‘Enter a Murderer’, back in August 2018 as part of the ‘first Penguin crime set‘ which were all first published by Penguin in August 1938. As I explained at the time:
New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh was considered in her time to be one of the ‘Queens of Crime’ along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham and is best known for her detective stories featuring Roderick Alleyn of the London Metropolitan Police.
This is another of those Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn crime mysteries. As a general rule most crime novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s clock in at about 200 to 225 pages but this one is surprisingly long for the period at 315 pages in the Penguin edition and I have to say that it is a very slow starter with scene setting and character introductions meaning that it doesn’t really get going until around page 70. If I hadn’t been convinced of Marsh’s ability to spin a tale I might have given up before then but it is well worth hanging on in there. The story is a twist on the ‘locked room’ type of crime novel in that the victim and the murderer are from the fixed group of people we have been introduced to, in this case because the grand country house that they are all in is surrounded by impassable snowdrifts and even the phone lines are down so they can have no contact with the outside world. That it is established early on in the novel that Alleyn is taking a break in the nearest village to where the murder takes place allows Marsh to bring him in even though he is clearly out of his jurisdiction but he is the only policeman anyone can get hold of.
The premise of the story is that Jonathan Royal, the owner of Highfold, decides to give a house party and for his own amusement chooses a group of people who all, for one reason or another, have an antagonistic feeling regarding at least one of the other guests. It is implied that he is hoping for some sort of reconciliation in one or more of the disagreements but will be quite happy if this doesn’t happen and is confident in his ability as a host to at least hold the group together. It will be a sort of unscripted play and with this in mind he has also invited a neutral player. Aubrey Mandrake is an avant garde, if not surrealist playwright who knows none of the other guests, Royal has backed some of his plays and has now invited him to be the audience in his own experimental theatre. Due to the animosity between the guests each has has a reason for, if not murder, then at least wishing harm to another and all these various hostilities are explained right at the start of the book as Jonathan Royal brings Mandrake into his confidence as to what he has planned. The complicated relationships between the other seven guests and the need to go into detail about them is one of the reasons for the slow start and it is only later as the interactions unfold that you realise that you actually need all that information in order to keep track of the various goings on.
Much to my surprise I got the murderer right, well before the denouement, although not all the finer detail as to how it was done, or rather how the alibi was done. Alleyn of course regarded the solution as trivial and he had largely wrapped up the case in his mind within a couple of hours of arriving at Highfold, his problem was proving it especially without access to his usual fellow policemen. All in all an excellent read for a dull and rainy July weekend and I do like a good detective story as a means of giving your brain a workout.
As an aside, I did like that characters in this book are clearly readers of detective fiction, in particular Dorothy L Sayers’ very popular Lord Peter Wimsey tales. On page 206 of this edition they reference Busman’s Honeymoon which I reviewed in September 2020.
“Could Hart have set a second booby trap.” “Do you mean could he have done something with that frightful weapon that would make it fall on …? Is that what you mean?”
“Yes. I can’t get any further, though. I can’t think of anything”
“A ‘Busman’s Honeymoonish’ sort of contraption? But there are no hanging flower-pots at Highfold”
Death and the Dancing Footman was first published in 1942 although mine is the first Penguin edition from 1949. Busman’s Honeymoon had come out just five years earlier in 1937 but had clearly been a major seller if Marsh could so easily drop in a reference to it. There is a slight nod to the plot of Busman’s Honeymoon in the solution to this case although the hint taken from the murder method in that book in the quote above is also a diversion from the actual method in this one so it was clearly a much loved book by Marsh.