Monday, November 12, 2018

Death & the Dancing Footman

Death & the Dancing Footman (1941) by Ngaio Marsh is one of those Golden Age mystery stand-bys: a murder at a country house party--and in the middle of a snow storm no less. But Marsh gives the standard a slight twist. Jonathan Royal, who by his own reckoning is a stifled artist, has decided to use human beings in a drama of his own contrivance. He has deliberately invited a houseful of guests where each person is at odds with at least one other person (and sometimes more). And he has invited Aubrey Mandrake, a poet dramatist, to be his impartial audience.

It came to me that human beings could, with a little judicious arrangement, be as carefully "composed" as the figures in a picture. One had only to restrict them a little, confine them within the decent boundaries of a suitable canvas, and they would make a pattern...Of course, the right--how shall I put it?--the right ingredients must be selected, and this was where I came in. I would set my palette with human colours, and the picture would paint itself.

Aubrey Mandrake is horrified. "It seems to me that you have invited stark murder to your house. Frankly, I can imagine nothing more terrifying than the prospect of this week-end." And, yet, it is the horrified fascination of someone watching a train-wreck. He can't not stay and watch the drama unfold.

And unfold it does though the guests do try to keep a civil and even sometimes party atmosphere going until Aubrey is shoved into the freezing waters of the outdoor pool and both Nicholas Compline and Dr. Francis Hart each claim the other has mistaken Aubrey for themselves and that murder has been attempted. Other attempts are made...but when death final comes, it strikes an unexpected target. Mandrake sets out through the drifts of snow to bring back Inspector Roderick Alleyn--who he knows to be staying in the near-by village. Alleyn will have to comb through all the clues to discover if it is a case of a victim by mistake or if the murderer got the results intended all along.
One of the delights of this book for me is the naming of the butler. A butler named Caper just seems so perfect for a mystery given one of its definitions as "an activity or escapade, typically one that is illicit or ridiculous." It's also quite apt in a book that has a dancing footman to have someone named after a word for "skip or dance about in a lively or playful way." Marsh must have thought it a bit much to actually name the footman Caper, but obviously couldn't resist implying that the butler might once have capered about himself when he was young.

I did find myself missing Alleyn for a huge chunk of the book. He doesn't show up until the story is two-thirds along and even then he's without Fox, his right-hand man. I enjoy their interactions very much and wish that we had had more time with their investigation. But the twist on the country house murder was very interesting and made for an enjoyable read overall. ★★★★

[Finished 11/7/18]

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