Ngaio 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.