Tuesday, September 17, 2019

False Scent

False Scent (1959) by Ngaio Marsh finds Inspector Roderick Alleyn investigating another murder in the theatrical world. This time the murder is completely off-stage--in all senses of the word. Mary Bellamy is a fading stage star...but still a star to be reckoned with. The scene opens on the day her friends and family and a few important personages have been invited to her home to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. But don't mention that dreaded number to our temperamental star. 

"What's a cake without candles?" said Old Ninn.
"Fifty of them....Oh, wouldn't they look lovely!"
Miss Bellamy took the only possible action. She topped Old Ninn's lines by snatching up the ritual knife and plunging it into the heart of the cake. The gesture, which may have had something of the character of a catharsis, was loudly applauded.

But the mention of the number of her years by her former nanny isn't the only catalyst for a burst of temper. Her husband, Charles Templeton, has the temerity to tell her to tone it down on her favorite scent, Formidable, and to stop using Slaypest--a highly potent and very dangerous pest killer. She doesn't do either. Florence, her personal maid tries once too often to calm her down. Her dress designer and a second-tier actress (known for helping prop the star up to shine more brightly) have deserted ship for another production. And her ward, a young and upcoming playwright who has till now written plays [comedies] only for her, has ventured into new territory [the dramatic] and produced a script that has most obviously not been written with her in mind. He has also taken up with a lovely young actress for whom he has written the play. 

Richard Dakers, the ward, can't see that Mary is not going to be pleased as punch to read a play that isn't for her. He can't fathom that she won't love Anelida (his young actress) as much as he does. And he is perfectly blind to the fact that bringing Anelida to Mary's birthday party and introducing her to a producer and director in theater world (and, most particularly, in Mary's theater world) right under Mary's nose just might make her really mad. So mad that she leaves her guests, tells him a few disturbing things about himself, and then...apparently sprays herself with Slaypest. Was it just a dreadful accident while she was in an incoherent rage? Or did one of the people she had told off that day have enough of her tantrums and stop them for good? Alleyn and Fox arrive on the scene and immediately see pointers towards murder--but which of the supporting players pulled down the curtain on the star?

Marsh's writing about theater personalities is some of her best. She portrays them with a depth and reality that comes from her personal experiences in the world of the stage. The set up is very good--she provides plenty of background and establishes the characters and their relationships to one another. We get a very good look at our murder victim--with all her faults and vanities on display. The way in which the murder is done is a bit obvious and it's disconcerting that Alleyn apparently doesn't catch on to it until very late in the book. But that is one of the few drawbacks. Over all, another enjoyable read from Marsh. As I have been rereading her mysteries in order, I have been reminded how much I enjoyed discovering them almost 40 years ago (really? could that be possible?). ★★ and 3/4.

Golden Vintage: Actor/Actress
Deaths = 1 (one poisoned; one heart attack)

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