Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Death at the Bar: Review

As part of the Ngaio Marsh Reading Challenge, I am rereading her first 12 Inspector Alleyn books (one per month). I read nearly all of these back in junior high school when I had run through all of the Agatha Christies that our public library had and was looking for more classic crime. This was my first time sitting down with Death at the Bar (1945) since then. I did listen to it as an audio novel several years ago and I have watched the televised version with Patrick Malahide, so the culprit did not come as such a surprise as it did in the past. As I mentioned in my review of the audio novel, Marsh managed to get me to focus on the same red herring both when I first read it and when I listened--but it hadn't been long enough this time for her to pull that trick again.

But down to cases: Attorney, Luke Watchman is headed to Devon and the Plume of Feathers pub for an annual holiday with his cousin Sebastian Parish and his friend Noman Cubitt.  On the way there he has a minor mishap with another motorist.  Watchman jumps out of his car to berate the other man on his driving habits and the driver mutters an apology at him and tries to avoid being seen clearly. Watchman is somewhat mollified, but gets the impression that he might know the other man and that the driver definitely doesn't want to be seen by him.

Watchman arrives at the Feathers and once settled he meets up with Parish and Cubitt in the private bar--where he regales them with the tale of his accident and his impressions of the other man. The other man is none other than Robert Legge--a fellow guest of the pub and a man who has been sitting in a secluded part of the bar.  Watchman tries to engage him in conversation, but it is clear that Legge does not want to be sociable.

During the course of the evening it is revealed that Legge is a "masterpiece" with the darts and can do all sorts of tricks with the darts and board--from playing Round the Clock (hitting point sections in order) to a circus-type move where he can outline a person's hand with darts.  Watchman doubts his skill--challenging him to repeat exactly a set of dart moves from the previous evening (and losing money on the bet) and then a game of Round the Clock, but shying away from presenting his hand for the circus trick.  The next evening Watchman changes his mind and says that if Legge can beat him at Round the Clock again, then he will let Legge do his dart and hand trick with him--he figures the worst that can happen is a prick from the dart and he's gotten a bit of courage from the brandy bottle produced by the proprietor.  

He would be wrong...by the end of the night Watchman is dead and a trace of cyanide found on the dart.  There was plenty of the stuff about the place--Abel Pomeroy, the pub owner, had been using the deadly poison to dispose of rats.  Someone decided to use it to dispose of Watchman.  But who?  The obvious person is Legge because he threw the dart.  But there are several witnesses to swear that he could not possibly have smeared poison on the instrument.  When Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Detective Sergeant Fox arrive to assist the local constabulary, they find all sorts of motives lurking about--there's Decima Moore and her boyfriend, Will Pomeroy who differ on politics and who don't appreciate Watchman's attentions to the lovely Decima; Parish and Cubitt are legatees under Watchman's will; and there are a couple of people who had dealings with Watchman in court.  The difficulty is that those with the most motive seem to have the least opportunity.  Fox will get a taste of poison himself (and be saved by Alleyn) before they can bring the crime home to the culprit.

I don't have a lot new to say about Death at the Bar. It is one of my favorite Alleyn novels. I particularly like the setting and the variety of characters. Since I remembered who the culprit was, I was able to focus more on the descriptions of the village and to watch the interactions between the characters. Overall, it still ranks as a ★★★★ outing.

One (totally minor but kindof annoying) thing that stood out to me on this reading was Marsh's over-use of the word "masterpiece." I get that she was trying to produce the flavor of the area's idiomatic language--but absolutely everything that was out of the ordinary was a "masterpiece"--from Legge's abilities in dart-throwing to the thunderous rain storm that hits the night of the murder to Alleyn and Fox, who have "the witty brains of those masterpieces at Scotland Yard."

[Finished 9/29/18]

What I'd like is a case. You know how it happens in these crime stories, chaps....I read a good many of them and it's always the same thing. The keen young P. C. happens to be on the spot when there's a homicide, His Super has to call in the Yard and before you know where you are the P. C.'s working with one of the Big Four and getting praised for his witty deductions. ~P. C. Oates (p. 55)

The coroner summed up at considerably length and with commendable simplicity. His manner suggested that the jury as a whole was certifiable as mentally unsound, but that he knew his duty and would perform it in the teeth of stupidity. (p. 84)

[regarding what was wrong with his car]
My good Harper, I have no notion. Fortunately I was becalmed near a garage. The fellow thrust his head among her smoking entrails, uttered some mumbojumbo, performed suitable rites with oil and water, and I was able to continue. ~Chief Constable Colonel Brammington (p. 106)

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