20 July 2007

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

A Man Lay Dead Journalist Nigel Bathgate is thrilled to receive an invitation to accompany his cousin Charles to Frantock. Sir Hubert Handesley is famous for his house-parties, and this one is about to prove more notable than most. To amuse his guests, the host has created a variation on the Murder Game: during the hours set, someone chosen at random by his butler will quietly select a ‘victim’ who will play dead while the gong is rung and the lights put out. After all but the ‘killer’ have frozen for two minutes, the lights will go up and the guests will attempt to determine the identity of the murderer. The gong rings, the lights go out, and two minutes later the occupants of Frantock discover a very real corpse. Someone has used the Murder Game as a cover to commit murder for real, and it will take real detective to figure out who.

I had hoped that this would be the time that I would succeed in solving the mystery first. But ... no. Although I’m going to blame that on a misapprehension as to the geography of the house, rather than any lack of deductive ability. (And I’m going to conveniently ignore the dozen-odd other times I’ve failed to beat Inspector Alleyn to the answer.) Even if I had identified the murderer, the precise method was something I would never have dreamed of - highly ingenious. I later learned that this was Marsh’s first novel, and it does show; the plot runs off on a tangent and takes a while to get back to the solving of the mystery. But in spite of the detour, it’s still worth a look.

Rating: B-

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776