Ngaio Marsh's Vintage Murder, first published in 1937, is a good example of the well-crafted Golden Age whodunit. It gains strength from being rooted in two worlds with which Marsh was very familiar - New Zealand, her native country, and the world of the theatre. Inspector Roderick Alleyn is travelling on North Island for the good of his health, but of course, wherever a Great Detective goes, murder is bound to follow.
Alleyn finds himself mixed up with a company of actors - the Carolyn Dacres Comedy Company. The company is run by two partners, Alfred Meyer and George Mason, and the leading lady is the lovely Carolyn, who just happens to be married to Meyer, and is an object of admiration for one of her fellow actors. An incident on board a train seems to suggest that Meyer's life may be at risk, and before long, at a celebration of Carolyn's birthday, he is killed in a very original fashion. A jeroboam of champagne was due to descend from the ceiling as part of the festivities. But someone has tinkered with it, and it duly crashes down, killing Meyer.
So -whodunit? Alleyn is only a bystander, but he soon finds himself drawn into the investigation. The local police come very close to tugging their forelocks when confronted by the great man from Scotland Yard. "We've all been trained on your book," they tell him. "It's - it's a great honour to meet the author." Ah yes, a footnote reminds us that Alleyn is responsible for a little tome called Principles and Practice of Criminal Investigation.
Marsh switches the focus of suspicion from one character to another with considerable ease. I felt that the psychology of the culprit wasn't exactly clear (or am I just miffed because I didn't figure out who was responsible?) but the writing style is easy and pleasant, and Marsh conveys her love of theatrical life very well. All in all,a good read. It will be fascinating to see what Stella Duffy, who shares a good deal in common with Marsh, will make of her forthcoming "continuation novel" based on an incomplete manuscript.