Classics in September – False Scent by Ngaio Marsh – It was back in 1934 that the first book featuring Ngaio Marsh’s gentleman detective, Roderick Alleyn first appeared. A Man Lay Dead kicked off a series that would total 32 novels and conclude 48 years later with Light Thickens. False Scent came somewhere in the middle. First published in 1960 by The Crime Club, it reappeared as an eBook a few years ago and is a good introduction to the excellent Kiwi writer and her style of crime fiction.
Marsh has been classified as being one of the four Queens of Crime, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. Together, they dominated the crime fiction genre in Britain in the 1920s and 30s. Several of her books centred on one of her great passions – the theatre – and False Scent is just one of those novels. It opens with the victim envisaging the scene of her own funeral with the cast of characters gathering to bid farewell to a woman who was much loved by all who knew her.
Mary Bellamy was the darling of the London stage in her heyday, but during a gala to celebrate her 50th birthday, someone decided to purposely mistake her for an azalea and spray her with insect killer. With a list of suspects who all hail from a theatrical background, this could prove an interesting case for Alleyn and sidekick, ‘Brer’ Fox, who must determine which one of them is hiding their true feelings behind a well-crafted mask.
This book is very much a play in three acts. In the first we meet our victim and are gradually introduced to the full roster of players. Mary is an ageing actress and as the act progresses we begin to see the mask she herself wears slipping away. To the outside world she is kind, benevolent Mary Bellamy but to her inner circle she’s demanding, moody and increasingly unpredictable. As each potential suspect is introduced, so too is a reason for each of them to want her dead.
By the second act, and after a dreadful scene, the deed is done but at first glance it’s thought to be a tragic accident – husband Charles had warned her to be careful with the Slaypest. However, it’s not long after Alleyn arrives at the beginning of th fourth chapter that it becomes evident that foul play was the cause. The third act is very much the drawing together of the piece and it’s obvious that Alleyn has a good idea of who the culprit. The question is: have you followed the neat trail of clues to reach the same conclusion?
To the 21st century reader, False Scent may seem a little dated in its style, but for me, that’s part of its charm. The language is as theatrical as the theme and the writing is seriously addictive. Marsh reels you into the drama and you happily immerse yourself in an extremely well-plotted, methodical story. My only disappointment was arriving at the last page.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars