Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh – #1951Club

Opening NightNgaio Marsh is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read for many years – and I don’t think I’ve actually read anything by her, though I wouldn’t swear to it. Anybody who loves Agatha Christie has probably at least thought about trying her contemporaries – and, in my time, I have given Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers attempts (liking one and rather disliking the other). Well, Marsh is probably my favourite of that trio of anti-Christies, based on Opening Night – but I am a sucker for anything set in the theatre. This one falls in the middle of her writing career – though the heyday of the Golden Age of Detection was surely coming to an end.

Martyn Tarne (are any women actually called Martyn?) has come from New Zealand to England with the ambition of becoming an actress. Indeed, she has done this a little in NZ – but London is calling her, and she has come to the weary end of auditions (and also to the end of her money) when she arrives at the final theatre on her list. It’s The Vulcan (the novel was called Night at the Vulcan in the US) – notorious as the site of a murder in the dressing rooms some years earlier, but now re-established as a respectable theatre. Only there’s no part going.

But… Ella Hamilton needs a dresser. Martyn is in the right place at the right time. She becomes Ella Hamilton’s dresser.

From this moment, we are thrown into a wonderfully-realised world of 1950s theatre – cattiness, competition, camaraderie and all. Ella Hamilton is married to Bennington, but having an affair with Poole. A nervous young actress, called Gay Gainsford, is unsuccessfully trying to play a part that Martyn would love to play. The cantankerous author of the play wanders around, telling people they’re appalling and quoting Shakespeare at them. A friendly Frenchman comforts everybody and does their work for them. It’s a fantastic ensemble, and I adored being in this melee of rehearsals and reprisals. Marsh is rather a witty writer – I enjoyed this description of the play:

Martyn tried to find out from Cringle what the play was about. He was not very illuminating. “It’s ’igh-brow,” he said. “Intellectually, it’s clarse. ‘A Modern Morality’ he calls it, the Doctor does. It’s all about whether you’re brought up right makes any difference to what your old pot ’ands on to you. ‘ ’Eredity versus enviroment’ they call it. The Guv’nor’s enviroment, and all the rest of ’em’s ’eredity. And like it always is in clarse plays, the answer’s a lemon. Well, I must go on me way rejoicing.”

But I was beginning to wonder if it was a murder mystery at all. I knew Marsh was a detective novelist, and this edition was published by The Crime Club, but page after page was going by without a hint of a death. Well, fear not – eventually it comes, although not until halfway through. Opening Night is clearly far more about the wonderful setting and characters, rather than a drawn-out detection process.

There is a detective on the scene – Inspector Alleyn. I believe he is a regular in Marsh’s novels, as perhaps his assistant Fox is, but they weren’t particularly distinctive in Opening Night. Alleyn is wry and wise, and a little paternal to Fox – but they don’t seem very vivid against the backdrop of the theatrical characters Marsh has created. I’m sure they would, after reading several in their series.

Marsh obviously has a fondness for the theatre, and there are some nice references. I enjoyed this one, having enjoyed the first two plays mentioned – though I have no idea what Sleeping Partners is or who wrote it:

“Tell me, Mike,” Alleyn said, “are many young women of your generation like that?”
“Well, no, sir. She’s what one might call a composite picture, don’t you think?”
“I do, indeed. And I fancy she’s got her genres a bit confused.”
“She tells me she’s been playing in Private Lives, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, and Sleeping Partners in the provinces.”
“That may account for it,” said Alleyn.

Nobody will ever topple Christie in detective fiction stakes (as I probably say with dulling regularity when I mentioned detective novels), but I loved reading Marsh – Opening Night was a real 1951 delight. Indeed, the year is shaping up to be pretty special.

19 thoughts on “Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh – #1951Club

  • April 12, 2017 at 12:27 pm
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    I have read a book by Marsh, but it was many years ago and I can’t really remember what I thought of it. I have read a Sayers more recently, and found it was more self-consciously literary than Christie but less satisfying. Then over Christmas I read one of Georgette Heyer’s crime novels, and it was fun but with a ridiculous plot that didn’t make much sense.

    Christie wins in the Golden Age stakes!

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:48 pm
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      She absolutely does! She has spoilt me for anybody else – but I can find other things to enjoy in them besides their plotting.

  • April 12, 2017 at 12:28 pm
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    Apart from Christie these detective novels/novelists leave me cold.

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:49 pm
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      Fair enough – she is in a league of her own.

      • April 13, 2017 at 9:07 am
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        One can re read Agatha Christie time and again.

  • April 12, 2017 at 1:11 pm
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    I Love Marsh! I almost named my daughter Ngaio, but the obscurity was too much. Alleyn is one of the great sympathetic detective characters and there is a great romance between him and one of the protagonists in a mystery, much like Allingham’s Campion and Amanda. Really great stuff. Marsh is the goriest of the three (Christie and Allingham the others). Love her!

    Are you familiar with Patricia Wentworth? She’s another golden age writer I love…

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:50 pm
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      Ngaio might be a tricky name to live up to! But thanks for the recommendations – I obviously picked up a not-very-gory one. And I know of Patricia W, of course, but have yet to read any.

  • April 12, 2017 at 2:51 pm
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    Marsh was a theatre director as well as a crime novelist, so theatre plays a big part in several of her books.

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:50 pm
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      I didn’t know that! Well, that certainly explains a lot :)

  • April 12, 2017 at 3:14 pm
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    Off topic—i hear GUARD YOUR DAUGHTERS is being re printed by Persephone later this year.A book by Diana Tutton which this blogger loves.I have an ancient copy that cost me 30pence.

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:50 pm
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      Yes indeed!

  • April 12, 2017 at 6:42 pm
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    I’ve read a few of her books and understand that her best ones are about the theater.

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:51 pm
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      I’m thrilled that more of them are set in the theatre :)

  • April 12, 2017 at 7:22 pm
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    Marsh is hit and miss for me. When she hits, I think she’s second in command to Christie in terms of plot, characterisation and tone. The novels are tightly and ingeniously plotted and the interactions sparky and intriguing. The first novel I read was Enter A Murderer which is also set on the stage, and it’s *fantastic*, I thought I’d found another Christie I could dive into but the next novel I read, Death in a White Tie was just so awful I couldn’t finish it; cheesy, flippant and silly. My hit rate is about 50/50 at the moment.

    The only other thing to consider is that they sort of have to be read in order as there’s a narrative throughout the series and the books discuss details in previous books as if the reader knows. His meeting, courtship and marriage to Troy for example.

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:52 pm
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      Forewarned is forearmed – thank you! I shall certainly make Enter A Murderer the next one I look out for – and avoid Death in a White Tie.

  • April 12, 2017 at 8:14 pm
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    I dipped into Allingham as an alternative to Christie but didn’t much care for what I found. Marsh could well be a better bet.

    • April 12, 2017 at 10:53 pm
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      Give her a go and see what you think!

  • April 13, 2017 at 2:55 am
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    I have only read one Ngaio Marsh and it was all about Morris Dancing which I found fascinating since I had never hear of that ritual/practice before. There was a murder too, but I don’t remember that bit really.

  • April 13, 2017 at 9:08 am
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    Great review, Simon! I read a shed load of Marsh back in the day but can’t be sure if this was one of them. I do remember that she was a bit inconsistent – some were good, some not so – but definitely worth exploring. 1951 is shaping up quite well, isn’t it?

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