Ngaio Marsh – Light Thickens (1982)

Peregrine Jay, whom we met before in Death at the Dolphin (he is now 20
years older, married to Emily with three children), is putting on a
production of Macbeth at the Dolphin Theatre. Amongst the cast the actors playing Macbeth and Malcolm both lust after the Lady Macbeth, the Banquo is a left-winger, the Lady Macduff obsessively superstitious, the Seyton fanatically enthusiastic about historical detail especially weaponry, and Macduff’s son – a boy – is the son of a man who is incarcerated in Broadmoor for the decapitation of six people. A number of practical jokes are played all involving references to decapitation, but the opening night comes and goes without a hitch – in fact the production is a triumph. Then at a performance a month later, at which Alleyn happens to be in the audience, it turns out that the head of Macbeth which is brought onstage on the point of a sword is not a dummy but Macbeth’s actual head.

Given that this is Marsh’s last work one searches for something good to say
but this proves hard. If Death at the Dolphin was probably one too many tale of theatre folk, this most definitely exceeds the quota. The first half of
the book with its detailed description of the production process is like
wading though treacle (I suppose if you are utterly fascinated by the
process of producing Macbeth this might not be so) and it is, very rarely
for Marsh, an improvement when the murder occurs and the investigation
begins. But not much of a one. Peregrine and Emily’s children are, as
children often are in GA mysteries, tiresome; Marsh’s idea of left-wing
politics risible and the solution is hackneyed and fairly obvious. The best
that can said is that the ending is an optimistic one. But this is one for
completists and enthusiasts only – and even the latter, among whom I include myself, may find it heavy going.

(June 2007)