Ngaio Marsh – False Scent (1960)

Mary Bellamy, a famous and adored comedienne, is preparing for he 50th Birthday Party. Her mood is upset by the fact that one of her younger rivals, Kate Cavendish, has just been given the lead in a new play, which will be designed by Bertie Saracen, whom Mary considers her personal property, ; her mood gets even worse when she discovers that her ward and protege, Richard Dakers, has written a new play, a serious one, which is intended not for her but for the young actress with whom he is in love, Anelida Lee and will be directed by another of Mary’s friends Timon Gantry. In the face of these disturbances Mary displays fits of histrionic fury which her husband, Charles Templeton, her old friend Colonel Warrender, her devoted maid Florence and her old dresser/Richard’s nanny ‘Old Ninn’ cannot assuage. The party however proceeds in its full panoply, complete with another tantrum from Mary, some time after which she is found dead on her bedroom floor as a result of her having sprayed herself with a potent pest-killer. 

Mike Grost names this as his favourite Marsh mystery novel – ‘It combines a well constructed, intricate plot with a delightful look at theater people.’ This is not really, I admit, how I read the book. I am offering no comment as to the plot construction which seems well up to her standards, but the book seems to me a very dark, almost depressing one. This is of course not a reflection on its quality. Mary Bellamy is a monster, Florence and Old Ninn are examples of Marsh’s unhinged elderly ladies, the theatrical people are, as usual in Marsh, histrionic and self-obsessed but generally without the element of charm present in, say, Opening Night. The ‘young love’ story of Richard and Anelida is not one of Marsh’s strongest and is in any case swamped by the various stronger and elder personalities. Above all it is the cumulative effect of the various revelations which occur once Alleyn arrives and in particular the murderer’s motive (very peculiar) which impose this bleakness. The book opens with Mary Bellamy imagining her own funeral and ends with an account of her actual funeral (Alleyn has connived in the suppression of the truth about her death – an interesting moral stance in itself) – it is, as I say, a dark book. I would certainly rank it is as among her best but admit it is not a personal favourite – I prefer those books where her mood is either a little lighter or where the resolution leaves a greater feeling of satisfaction. But there is absolutely no question that Marsh is totally in control of her material in a way that only the great GA writers achieve. 

As a final note I wonder how many other GA mysteries contain a reference to a character from Proust? (Timon Gantry is said to have ‘the omnisicience of M. de Charlus’.)