Ngaio Marsh – Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)

The book is fascinating for many reasons. It is perhaps worth noting that
it is set in Dorset, very near to the location of Overture to Death and a
couple of characters from that book make a minor appearance. But of far more interest is the fact that this is a War book. It is set very precisely in the winter of 1939/40, the period of the ‘phoney war’ but written after the events of that time. It certainly has none of the propaganda (and thriller) elements of Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse or Agatha Christie’s N or M but there are repeated references to the war, with the two brothers at the centre of the story both being involved and various wireless bulletins being mentioned. The sense of impending doom and of things being frozen are perhaps rather obvious metaphors for the political situation but effective nonetheless. Alleyn makes a number of remarks towards the books conclusion as to the fact that they are devoting such time to solving a single killing when a year from now there will be thousands upon thousands dead with no-one to investigate; whether this is Marsh using hindsight to boost her detective’s perspicuity and status is probably a matter for the readers own judgement.

The bizarre elements include most obviously the Dancing Footman of the
title, whose dance it should be noted is ‘Boomps a daisy’! There is also a
romantic sub-plot involving Mandrake and one of the house-guests, which
serves to tide events along and alleviates the forensic boredom which
threatens to set in when Alleyn arrives on the scene. But the book’s great
strength is the way in which Marsh sets up a classic GA situation – the
country-house mystery with a wonderful set of motives and mutually
antagonistic characters; she does this by using Jonathan Royal as a stand-in
for the author herself. It is a wonderfully modern and knowing piece of
writing which yet remains wholly believable within the bounds of the
convention. With Royal Marsh is in part teasing herself – but also in my
opinion teasing Sayers. There is a wonderful passage near the start of the
book where Royal conducts Mandrake on a tour of the house pointing out the flower arrangements he has made for each room and adding various more or less obscure literary allusions. It is very whimsical (geddit?) but also somewhat absurd. This assertion – that there is a Sayers tease taking place here – is given weight by the fact that Marsh makes a direct allusion to
Busman’s Honeymoon later in the book – she talks of a Busman’s Honeymoon type of device.

To sum up, I would place this very near the summit of great GA
country-house mysteries, given added interest and poignancy by its precise
historical setting.

(May 2007)