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Lord George Pastern and Baggott has always been eccentric, but when he decides to join a bunch of jazz musicians under the tutelage of Breezy Bellairs, his relatives think he has finally lost it. His wife, Cecile, is even more concerned when she finds out that her daughter (and George's stepdaughter) is seeing one of the jazz musicians, an Argentine called Carlos Rivera. Then disaster strikes at a performance - Rivera, who pretends to die as part of the act, is actually killed. Fortunately, Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn is part of the audience and quickly becomes involved in the search for the killer. Can he find out why everyone involved seems to be lying? And what does the agony uncle of a popular magazine have to do with the case?
Ngaio Marsh, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham, has long been hailed one of the queens of crime. A New Zealander by birth, she was heavily involved with the theatre until her death, and many of her books involve the theatre and the performing arts.
The main character of this book and around thirty others is Roderick Alleyn, all round good egg and clever detective of Scotland Yard. As a fan of crime fiction, I do get a little fed up of the same mould of detective in books of the genre and I have to admit that Alleyn is not one of my favourite characters. He is not particularly inspiring as a character and has a tendency to patronise his subordinates (albeit with the best of intentions). In this particular book he is particularly dull; for readers new to the series, they will find out precious little about him. I much prefer the books that involve his wife, Troy - Alleyn becomes much more alive when she is around.
Marsh's involvement with the theatre has obviously given her some insight into the characters that frequent the stage and she has produced some fascinating individuals in other books. Unfortunately though, in this book, the characters are little more than caricatures of the rather difficult 'luvvie' type. As a result, they are all rather annoying, particularly Lord George, whose eccentricities come across as being ridiculous and unrealistic. This is a great shame, because I know Marsh has done so much better in other books.
The story, too, is not Marsh's strongest. The crux of the matter revolves around the murder weapon, which is something to do with a stilleto, a parasol and a revolver. All of this became rather complicated and I found it hard to follow, to the extent that I was tempted not to bother. This is very unlike me when reading books by this author - I can usually barely put them down until I have finished the last page. In this case, I did finish the book, but I certainly wasn't as gripped by the story as I have been in the past. Added to this is the story of the agony uncle, which didn't really seem to add anything to the book and fell rather flat at the end.
The book was written in the forties and, as such, the language is old-fashioned and sometimes downright odd. I suspect that much of the dialogue is unique to the world of the performing arts, which makes it even stranger to read in this day and age. I have never found that this is off-putting - in fact, I think it adds to the charm of the writing - but I can understand that this and the social commentary of the time may put some younger readers off. At the same time, drugs play an important part in this book, which for its time is quite unique.
I would definitely not recommend this book to readers new to this author - there are other much better books in the series, including A Clutch of Constables and Death at the Bar. If, like me, you are a diehard fan of books of this author and/or period, then this is obviously a must-read. Just don't expect it to be as good as others in the series.
The book is currently available from Amazon for £2.92 for a new one, which is a real bargain. Published by Saint Martins Press, it has 336 pages. ISBN: 0312966067