Tuesday Night Club: Ngaio Marsh's Death at the Dolphin

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a loose grouping of crime fiction fans who are choosing an author each month to write about - December’s author is Ngaio Marsh

This month, I have volunteered to collect links to the posts on my blog each week – so please tell me if you are taking part. I should add that all are welcome – there are no entry criteria and there is no commitment. If you just want to write one post about one book you will be as welcome as someone writing every week for a year – just join in and send us (me) the link.

This week,

Kate Jackson wrote about Categorizing Ngaio Marsh

Helen Szamuely on Ngaio Marsh and the Scottish Play

Noah Stewart offers his take on Hand in Glove and Last Ditch

Next month we are moving on to Rex Stout, and thus the redoubtable Nero Wolfe.

Last week's list is here

For my entries I looked at four different books from throughout Marsh’s career. As there are 5 Tuesdays in December, I then chose to read one more, because I liked the idea of the theatrical setting.

Death at the Dolphin by Ngaio Marsh

published 1966

Fifteen minutes later they were shown into Miss Destiny Meade's drawing-room.

It was sumptuous to a degree and in maddeningly good taste: an affair of mushroom-coloured curtains, dashes of Schiaparelli pink, dull satin, Severes plaques and an unusual number of orchids. In the middle of it all was Destiny, wearing a heavy sheath with a mink collar: and not at all pleased to see Inspector Fox.

"Kind, kind," she said, holding out her hand at her white arm's length for Alleyn to do what he thought best with. "Good afternoon," she said to Mr. Fox.

"Now, Miss Meade," Alleyn said briskly, "what's the matter?" He reminded himself of a mature Hamlet.

"Please sit down. No, please. I've been so terribly distressed and I need your advice so desperately."
Alleyn sat, as she had indicated it, in a pink velvet buttoned chair. Mr. Fox took the least luxurious of the other chairs and Miss Meade herself sank upon a couch, tucked up her feet, which were beautiful, and leaned superbly over the arm to gaze at Alleyn. Her hair, coloured raven black for the Dark Lady, hung like a curtain over her right jaw and half her cheek. She raised a hand to it and then drew the hand away as if it had hurt her. Her left ear was exposed and embellished with a massive diamond pendant.

commentary: Reading up on Marsh for our Tuesday Night Club, her good points and her bad points shine out. She is very funny and perceptive, and does excellent dialogue. But her investigations tend to slow down in the middle, and her division of characters into nice and nasty can be excruciating. There is a lot of gruesome and pointless violence, surprisingly for those thinking she is cozy.

She is forever, as above, telling us what is good taste and what is bad – see also this entry on Death in a White Tie. She can be very amusing and clever in her observations, and then plonking and banal in the next paragraph. Her hero Alleyn is apparently irresistible to all women - that's the issue above - which is wince-making.

But - this one is a late return to form I would say: a hugely enjoyable romp through the putting on of a play at a restored old theatre. Marsh’s own knowledge is rippled through it – although the basic concept (lost Shakespeare artefacts, play about his life, philanthropic finance) is totally unconvincing, the picture of putting-a-play-on is wholly authentic-seeming. And the strange Russian oligarch seems more a man of the 2010s than the 1960s…

The first chapter catches you, as a man goes to a derelict theatre, gets into danger and is rescued. But – the man, Peregrine, is not introduced properly, and I for one was astonished when he is revealed later on to be 27. The limited info she gave earlier definitely pointed to a much older character, an established theatrical figure. I never understood where the dangerous water came from, how his accident happened: given that there is a final linkup with this incident (and one that is compelling and memorable) I thought she could have done a bit more to explain the unlikely series of events.

But then the book improves. I liked the monstrous child actor (see this Streatfeild entry for another recent blog example) –‘it was lucky in more ways than one that he died early in the first act’.

I did have a problem with the security for the valuable items. First of all, the heavy metal safe arrangement is completely incomprehensible and I would challenge anyone to explain this:
The housing for the glove and letters was in a cavity made in the auditorium wall above the sunken landing which was, itself, three steps below the level of the circle foyer. In this wall was lodged a large steel safe, with convex plate glass replacing the outward side. The door of the safe, opposite this window, was reached from the back of the circle and concealed by a panel in the wall. Between the window and the exterior face of the wall were sliding steel doors, opened electrically by a switch at the back of the cavity. Concealed lighting came up when the doors were opened. Thus the glove and letters would be exposed to patrons on the stairs, the landing and, more distantly, in the foyer.
But at the same time, the business with the combination and the keyword is ridiculous, and it is completely unbelievable that such a system would be considered safe and proper.

But then the whole plot is a bit mad – the crime and the basis of it didn’t seem to make the slightest sense, nor to follow on from other events in the book. And, as ever, you don’t want to unpack Marsh’s attitudes towards gay people too closely – sometimes she seems to be trying, and sometimes she doesn’t.

But – as a novel of theatrical life it was highly enjoyable, and a nice ending to my month of Marsh reading.


  1. I find the gay character (Charles?) sympathetic. "Not 100% he-man, as you may have guessed." No, we wouldn't say that now. No, never understand the safe, but Peregrine is warned about the hole in the stage, and the old "trap" that has filled up with water. It was a spring arrangement with a door in the stage that propelled the Demon King into the panto. Presumably the door has given way... One of my favourites.

    1. I had my complaints, but still enjoyed this one hugely: it was a real page-turner. I must not have read that opening chapter carefully enough then!

  2. You really do put it beautifully, Moira. Marsh was clever, witty and perceptive. The mysteries themselves? Perhaps not always so much. But she did have such a sense of the theatre and theatre life that it's hard to resist one of her novels set in that context. Glad you found a lot to like in this one.

    1. In some ways it was like reading a theatrical novel, Margot, and none the worse for that. I didn't particularly like the solution, I kept thinging 'hang on...', I felt a few things were unresolved. But still, real enjoyment.

  3. This novel strains credulity to the breaking point to me, which is a shame since there is some good characterization. (The child actor and his slatternly mother are nicely detailed.) As you say, the security arrangements are both incomprehensible and ridiculous. I cannot for the life of me figure out why Mr. Conducis would feel impelled to give away a valuable piece of real estate to a person who has had an accident within its confines. (I know what the book says, I just cannot accept it.) And to me Marsh's habitual anti-gay sentiments are not expressed most clearly in the person of Charles, but in the vulgar and inappropriate way in which Mr. Conducis's butler informs Peregrine -- whom I always found to be a little light in the loafers -- that Mr. Conducis is "not that way inclined". Frankly, that would be more understandable than any reasons that are given for his behaviour, but if I had a butler who spoke that way to strangers about my personal life, he'd be out on his ear. The production of the play itself is moderately believable, though, at least when compared to some of the other nonsense Marsh has invented ("The Rat and the Beaver", for instance).

    1. As ever, Noah, your analysis leaves me shaking with laughter while full of admiration for perceptiveness. Yes to all you say, and most definitely if we ever have butlers like that we most certainly must fire them.

    2. As always, Moira, you are very kind to be amused at my curmudgeonly excesses. The thing is, though, that occasionally even in this book Marsh writes something so lovely, or so precise and beautifully observed, that it excuses a lot. Not everything, but a lot. I can't think of a single gay character anywhere in her writing who is evidence of her being sympathetic to their situation -- except perhaps Mr. Pyke Period and Connie Cartell of "Hand in Glove", both of whom are firmly in the closet.

    3. Yes to all you say, and she certainly does have her moments.

  4. No, definitely not sold on her, though I fear I have at least something by her - a grave purchasing error!

    1. Given what you've got in there it would be surprising if there was anyone completely unrepresented.

  5. I will be reading this one eventually, since it is set in the theater. sounds like it has its ups and downs, but I just skimmed this and the comments, so as not to know too much going in.

    1. Anyone who likes theatre-set books will definitely enjoy this one Tracy.


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