Ngaio Marsh – Death at the Dolphin (aka Killer Dolphin) (1967)

Peregrine Jay, playwright and theatre director, is viewing the dilapidated
and semi-ruined Dolphin Theatre when he falls into a watery hole on the
stage; he is rescued by a man who turns out to be Vassily Conducis a
reclusive millionaire. Conducis shows Jay a glove which he claims to be one
made by Shakespeare’s father for Shakespeare’s son. He then offers to rebuild the Dolphin and to finance a production of a play to be written by Jay about Shakespeare. The glove, who’s authenticity has been tested, will be displayed in the theatre foyer. Alleyn is initially called in to
supervise the security arrangements. The play is a big hit, but when
Conducis announces that the glove is to be sold to a buyer from the US an
attempt is made to steal it, the night-watchman is murdered and the juvenile in the play seriously injured. Alleyn, naturally, must return and
investigate which of the theatre company is responsible.

When Alleyn’s initial involvement is explained Marsh writes “Alleyn was not
altogether unused to the theatrical scene or to theatrical people. He had
been concerned in four police investigations in which actors had played –
and ‘played’ had been the operative word – leading roles”. I take these four
to be Vintage Murder, Final Curtain, Opening Night and False Scent. The
problem is that one rather wishes that neither Alleyn nor Marsh had embarked on a fifth. This is definitely a weaker book than any of those in every respect. Even the plot summary probably reveals this – reclusive
millionaires are nearly always somewhat of a pain. But one feels that one
has encountered most of the characters – the ‘difficult’ leading man, Marcus
Knight, for instance -before and rather better done. Another problem, for me at least, is the fact that Marsh here allows her fascination with and
adoration of Shakespeare off the hook. This preoccupation emerges throughout her work, and Shakespearean references abound (even in the non-theatrical novels – see for instance how King Lear is dragged into Off With His Head ; here however it is almost overwhelming. If you are a fellow devotee of Shakespeare this might well be a positive but for the reader who is not it can become wearisome. The actual crime, investigation and solution are all fairly routine, with the question of the theft of the glove itself being
rather tedious. It would be going too far to say that this is a bad book;
precisely because she had done theatrical mysteries before it has an easy
competence, but it is certainly not among her best and is, as previously
remarked, the weakest of the theatrical mysteries.

(June 2007)

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