Ngaio Marsh – Opening Night (aka Night at the Vulcan) (1951)

Martyn Tarne, 19 years old, arrives in London in search of fame and fortune
as an actress; when the book opens her money has been stolen and she has
been vainly seeking work for days before she arrives at the Vulcan theatre.
The female star’s dresser has been taken ill and Martyn being in the right
place at the right time gets the job.

The Vulcan is just preparing to open a new play, ‘Thus to Revisit’, by the eccentric and obnoxious Dr Rutherford; there are all kinds of ructions both personal and professional amongst the cast, which includes the leading man, Adam Poole, and the forementioned star, Helena Hamilton, and her drunkard husband Clark Bennington. The central professional problem lies in the fact that there is a character in the play who is supposed to look like Adam Poole, but unfortunately the actress involved, Gay Gainsford, has neither the looks nor the talent and has obtained the part as a result of the fact that she is Bennington’s niece. On the hand Martyn herself bears an uncanny resemblance to Poole. In addition to all this is the fact that some of the cast regard the the theatre itself as unlucky – it was the scene of a complex murder in the dressing rooms some years ago which was solved by – guess who -Alleyn. So when, over half way into the book, Clark Bennington is found murdered in his dressing room in circumstances which seem to uncannily mirror the earlier murder, it is not surprising that it is Alleyn who is once again called upon.

We are in classic Marsh territory with this book – a young woman as heroine, here as in Surfeit of Lampreys, a New Zealander. Mike Grost has written
brilliantly of the role of this kind of Marsh heroine. Then we have again a
theatrical setting. We have the murder occurring a long way into the book
and thus a very delayed appearance for Alleyn. We have the fact that the
opening half of the book – the build-up to the murder – is much stronger
than the later parts (again see Mike Grost). And we also have quite a bit
of sex or sexuality. The opening chapter is just brilliant. When she
extended herself as a ‘literary’ writer Marsh could be, like Allingham,
very, very good. And indeed there are similarities to Allingham here –
London transformed into something almost nightmarish. But Marsh injects an element of very specifically sexual menace into Martyn’s plight. Closeted
alone in the theatre with the night-porter he is drying her shoes…”He
advanced upon her and squatted to gather up the shoes. His hand, large and
prehensile, with a life of its own, darted out and closed over her foot.’ Ow
abaht yer stockings?’. Martyn felt not only frightened but humiliated and
ridiculous: wobbling, dead tired, on one foot. It was as if she half-caught
in some particularly degrading kind of stocks’. Later in the book we have a
remarkable scene of marital rape even more intensely imagined and described. There is, to ride a hobbyhorse, absolutely nothing cosy about this.

The book’s characteristic weakness, and I refer once again to Mike Grost’s
summary, lies in the crime and its’ solution. Marsh does pull off a trick by
having the murder being a re-staging, very appropriate for a theatrical
setting, of an earlier one. But the identity of the murderer is, it seems to
me, if not predictable then at least wholly unsurprising. So once again a
very fine opening half is somewhat marred by the resolution.

(for Mike Grost’s article see,+Ngaio )

(June 2007)