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Chapter 1:- ...

If you had mentioned country house murder mystery to me up until yesterday, I would have said that I was familiar with the genre. That is, until I picked up A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh.


(Edith) Ngaio Marsh, 1895 – 1982, was a New Zealand crime writer and theatre director. A Man Lay Dead was her first detective novel to be published.


Initially I had an indulgent chuckle at the blurb on the back cover, which set out what I felt was a common scenario.


Then I cracked open the book and started reading. At which point I realized – I knew the genre only though secondhand knowledge. A pastiche here in a movie or printed work, a parody there on a TV sketch show. I had no knowledge from a work of the time (the book was published in 1934).


This was similar, I thought, to knowing about the popular music of the 1960s only through the bands of subsequent eras, which adopted and used the various recognizable styles for themselves. Going directly to the source opened up fresh angles for me.  


In the story, a murder is committed during a game of “murders” in the dark at a country house. The victim is dispatched from behind with a dagger through the heart, where the dagger apparently belonged to a mysterious Russian brotherhood. The title says it all. If detective fiction can be seen as embodying a form of game-playing, with red herrings and multiple suspects, then here we have that action based directly on a game. In fact, Inspector Alleyn insists that the suspects proceed with the cross-examination part of the entertainment. That is, the story comes with its own dark humor, which needs no tongue in cheek approach by the reader.


The novel is certainly theatrical, and I could see the characters entering and exiting the stage as the plot unfolded. The English class structure permeates the work. Only a book of its era could have a character say “By Jove”, without any hint of irony on behalf of the character or author. The nuances of the excellent characterization shine through. While the cozy language provided a high-contrast with the trauma of the murder. Again, it is an engagement with source material which brings out this latter point.


The format was sufficiently established in 1934 to allow deliberate self-reference to Holmes and Watson. In chapter 10, Inspector Alleyn says, good-naturedly, “Every sleuth ought to have a tame halfwit, to make him feel clever. I offer you the job, Mr Bathgate – no salary, but a percentage of the honor and glory.” An offer which Nigel Bathgate, with equal good-humor, accepts.


Ultimately, A Man Lay Dead is a well-realized, thoroughly engaging example of this classic genre. Ngaio Marsh is now on my list of must-read authors.


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