Saturday, April 21, 2018

Death in Ecstasy: Review

Death in Ecstasy (1936) by Ngaio Marsh finds Inspector Roderick Alleyn's some-time Watson, Nigel Strangeways, bored on a rainy, blustery London night. He gazes discontentedly out his window and notices a sign glinting in the light as the wind gusts and jostles it about: House of the Sacred Flame. A mysterious-sounding place and as he watches members of the obscure sect enter the sacred portals, he decides that attending the services of a strange religious group is just what he needs to liven up a dull evening. Who knows--there might even be a story in it. Little does he suspect just how much news he's going to find behind the doors.

This particular Sunday night was a special one--a monthly service in which The Chosen Vessel, in this case one Miss Cara Quayne, having been prepared through a month of preparatory sessions with Father Garnette--the founder, reaches a state of Ecstasy through ceremony. Bathgate watches as a sacred chalice is passed among the faithful. There's a bit of chanting, Cara drinks from the cup, and falls down at the feet of the priest. 

My friends...My friends, our beloved sister has been vouchsafed the greatest boon of all. She is in ecstasy. Let us sing our hymn to Pan, the God-in-all.

But--as one of the Initiates points out...

It's not. It's not. She's dead. I touched her. She's dead!

Dr. Kasbek, a member of the congregation comes forward and confirms the Initiate's declaration. They are about to clear the House when Nigel suggests that no one should leave just yet and perhaps the police should be called. After all--the woman's mouth and eyes look a bit odd and there's a certain smell. The doctor investigates further and agrees with Nigel that it looks very like poison. The newsman uses the phone to call in his old friend Inspector Alleyn.

Alleyn walks into a place of mystery that is nonetheless full of very familiar worldly motives for murder--greed, jealousy, and lust to name a few. There are seven suspects all with reasons to want the lovely Cara dead--from those who were jealous of her chosen position with Father Garnette to those with a taste for the "special cigarettes" that light the way to ecstasy to those who were greedy for her wealth...either for themselves or to fill the coffers of the Sacred Flame. It's up to Alleyn with the help of Inspector Fox and Nigel to sift the clues and find those that point to the murderer.

Marsh does atmosphere very well in this one. Her theatrical background lends itself to creating the slightly over-the-top trappings of the Sacred Flame. A cult that embraces all the gods of everywhere and every time and the sacred words and chants of them all. And she presents it without it seeming like the incredible mishmash that it is. Alleyn may raise his eyebrows at it, but while the ceremony is in progress, even the worldly journalist Bathgate is swept up in the moment and lulled by the words of the priest. It's easy to see how the Initiates could be wrapped up in the cult. 

Well-written with skillful plotting, though not quite as mystifying as her previous work. ★★

[Finished on 4/7/18]

1 comment:

Carol said...

I haven't read this one yet, but hope to soon.