In hindsight, rereading Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead directly after Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair might have been a mistake. Stylistically, the two do not compare: Tey is by far the better stylist, and her characters have much more depth than Marsh’s.
It’s a bit of an unfair comparison, though, for several reasons. First, A Man Lay Dead was Marsh’s first novel, whereas Tey was well into her career with The Franchise Affair. And they’re two distinctly different types of mysteries, and written at different points during that time known as The Golden Age—the Marsh book is over 10 years earlier, at a time when Agatha Christie was in full reign over the British Crime novel. So it’s really very much an apples and oranges kind of comparison. Still, it’s a fact that the far more sparse Marsh left me wanting, following on the heels of the Tey as it did. And that’s too bad, because I really like Ngaio Marsh as a whole—she’s a great plotter with a theatrical flair to her mysteries that’s entertaining. But again, in hindsight (that useful creature!), she’s obviously struggling to find her way in this first effort.
The plot of A Man Lay Dead is fairly simple: a country house party, a game of Murder, a real dead body instead of pretend. There’s a side order of bolshie Russians causing trouble, several women scorned, the intrepid BYT, and, of course, the enigmatic Roderick Alleyn in his first appearance in print. As plots go, it’s pretty standard stuff—the country house mystery had been done prior to this, and the Russians, the BYT, the tom-cat victim and his various women are all familiar types in a mystery of this era. In as far as those things go, nothing here really stands out, and in fact, you’d find any of these elements in a Christie book from the same time period.
Where Marsh differs from Christie is that Alleyn is a professional policeman—these books are, therefore, more in the procedural vein than the private investigator line. So whereas someone like Hercule Poirot can be all “ah, yes” and engage his little grey cells after an inscrutable conversation with someone, or Miss Marple can gently nose her way around by asking seemingly innocuous questions, Alleyn follows police procedure. He collects evidence, he interviews the suspects, he works on alibi breaking and confirming, constructs a timeline, looks for motives, and pries into personal lives. It’s all a bit more cut and dried, and Marsh has to labor a bit in this first book to make Alleyn interesting enough for the reader to want to spend an entire novel with him.
In that sense, it’s probably wise that she starts out with an accidental Watson for him in the person of Nigel Bathgate, a reporter who has been invited to the house party along with his cousin Charles, who ends up dead. Nigel has an unbreakable alibi, so Alleyn can use him in places where he, as a policeman, cannot tread. The story is told from Nigel’s point-of-view, and as he has a natural interest in what Alleyn is doing, he conveys that interest to the reader. It works up to a point, but in later books she’d jettison Nigel in favor of a more omniscient point-of-view for the simple reason that once Alleyn’s character is established, Nigel becomes more of an encumbrance than a useful character. But here he serves his purpose by introducing us, so to speak, to Alleyn and his methods. But it turns out that Roderick Alleyn is pretty hard to get to know.
It’s obvious this is an early book in the series because Marsh seems a bit unclear with what exactly she wants Roderick Alleyn to be—at times he’s a totally conventional policeman, at others a bit of a maverick; he is at turns both capricious and logical. Sometimes he’s straightforward with Nigel and at other times he’s clearly leading him up the garden path. He seems an ordinary guy doing ordinary work for Scotland Yard, but there are hints that he’s something a bit more—a vague suggestion of an aristocratic pedigree that she would never spell out even 30 books later, just hint at.
It’s very hard, in this first book, not to see the influence of both Christie and Sayers, and yet Marsh also had a third influence: the theatre. All of her books have a whiff of theatricality about them, and many of them are set either in the theatre or concern actors. A Man Lay Dead, with its dramatic murder (a knife in the back is quite plebian compared to some of the later methods she conjured up—one thing about Marsh was that she was rarely at a loss for an unusual means of killing someone, and she came up with some real doozies) and the later recreation of the crime, demonstrate her theatre roots most ably—reading the scene where the body is discovered, for example, I could see it as a stage piece: the gong, the staircase, the body face-down with the dagger in the back, the houseguests standing around gaping. Enter the Great Detective, stage left. One thing you can always do with Marsh is visualize every scene, right down to the tray clothes and the leaves on the trees. She was also an artist, and it shows.
Her theatre experience, and she had a great deal of it, is a great plus in terms of straightforward plotting and limning out basic characters. But none of the characters in this particular book really develops much past the two dimensional stage—it’s like she’s cast them in the book and told them to take care of developing themselves. In later books, this doesn’t really get much better, and her seeming determination to keep Alleyn’s roots a mystery even prevents her from doing much with him. There are exceptions—A Surfeit of Lamphreys, for example, is a great example of what she could do with characters when she felt like bothering. But just as Christie wasn’t particularly concerned with the people in her books, but the plot, one gets the idea that Marsh is more worried about setting the scene and then filling in the gaps with the expected people.
All of this sounds hyper critical now that I’m reading back through it, and I don’t mean it to be. While I don’t reread her books as often as others, I do like them, and some of them, like the four set in New Zealand or the ones with a theatre setting, are quite evocative. When she’s happy and comfortable with her setting, the books seem elevated to another level. Here, though, her discomfort with the country house setting shows, I think. So it’s a fun book, and the solution is a bit far-fetched, but it showed the promise of someone with better books in her.