Death at the Bar (Ngaio Marsh)

  • By Ngaio Marsh
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1940; US: Little Brown, 1940

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Possibly Marsh’s best detective story, and certainly one of her most tightly-knit jobs. The victim is a famous K.C., poisoned with cyanide in the private taproom of a Devon inn while taking part in a demonstration of darts-throwing. Plenty of good circumstantial evidence leads to the supposition of an impossible crime. Alleyn, called in by both the publican and the local police, does a splendid and fast (twenty-four hours) job of discovering the murderer, whose identity is an object lesson in diverting suspicion from the most likely person. Method ingeniously simple, and hence convincing: a neat job. Two other features confirm the book’s status as a classic: the virtuoso display of logic at the end, including a delightful false solution propounded by an amusing Chief Constable, and the poisoning of Fox.

Blurb (UK)

At the Plume of Feathers in South Devon one mid-summer evening eight people are gathered together in the tap-room.  They are in the habit of playing darts, but on this occasion an experiment takes the place of the usual game – a fatal experiment which calls for investigation.  A distinguished painter, a celebrated actor, a woman graduate, a plump lady from County Clare and a Devonshire farmer all play their parts in the unravelling of the problem.  The brilliant Ngaio Marsh is an acknowledged ace writer of detective stories, and in Death at the Bar she is at her most ingenious.

Blurb (US)

Ngaio Marsh’s new novel about another of Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn’s cases is as absorbing as anything she has yet written.  Readers who have missed “Overture to Death” and “Death in a White Tie” have a very pleasing experience ahead of them when they discover here the fresh and sparkling talent that in the words of one reviewer, “has Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie wondering if their crowns are on straight.”

Ngaio Marsh’s rapid climb to success and no little fame as a detective-story writer is due to the fact that she is an able novelist as well as a superlative spinner of tangled webs.  The people in her books live and grow.  They have real lives, jolted off the tracks for the time being by tragedy.  In this story of murder in the bar of the inn o fa sleepy English fishing village one is almost as much concerned with the heart affairs of the Oxford-educated farmer’s daughter, the business affairs of the innkeeper, the mental perturbation of the radical organizer, as with Roderick Alleyn’s fascinating solution of how and why a game of darts brought sudden death to a distinguished King’s Counsel.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 6th January 1940): DEATH BY A DART

The detective story publishing season reopens brilliantly with a new novel by Miss Marsh.  This talented author has sloughed off most of her more irritating sentimentalities and presents us with a really clever problem in detection, the very thing to absorb our attention on snowbound, blacked-out evenings.

The scene of Death at the Bar is an inn in a remote corner of Cornwall.  Here are gathered an old Conservative innkeeper, his Left-wing son with a shady friend, three “toffs” from London, fishing, painting and posturing, a local scandalmonger and the attractive daughter of a farmer.  The shady friend is a master hand at darts, and to demonstrate his skill agrees to throw darts in between the outstretched fingers of one of the visitors, a barrister; but he misses, to thrust a dart into a trusting finger; at the sight of blood the barrister swoons and dies horribly and mysteriously a few minutes afterwards.  The presence of ample rat poison in the cellar and of a suspicion of cyanide on the offending dart makes foul play likely, and since the local police make small progress in the following investigation Scotland Yard is called in.

Miss Marsh’s gentlemanly detective Alleyn is in excellent form and solves the case within twenty-four hours of his arrival, although not before his alter ego, Sergeant Fox, is nearly poisoned too.  Another reviewer has thought fit to give away the murder method—a fact which was kept from the Chief Constable in the story, who not unnaturally went astray; but even with this piece of knowledge it will need a sharp brain to discover the criminal.  It is a pity that Miss Marsh allows most of her men characters to talk like women (surely only feminine men talk about each other the whole time?).  Nevertheless it is a story which deserves full marks.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 10th February 1940): Miss Marsh is an oldtimer in point of output—she has already eight books on her shelf—but not in bad habits.  She never loses her enthusiasm for her trade and is always trying to improve.  Death at the Bar is as competent a story as she has yet written.  In the bar of a Devonshire inn a rather provoking K.C. dies of cyanide poisoning after a game of darts.  Nearly everyone present has a political, financial or sexual motive to get rid of him.  All the characters are lively, all the suspects plausibly suspicious and the clue is scrupulously fair.  If only you knew whether Miss Marsh was a member of the Left Book Club you could be surer of your solution, but I’m not telling.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Mrs. Christie’s first novel) may provide a pointer to the authoress’s technique and she could not have followed a better instructress.  With so much praise I regret to record that Miss Marsh still thinks dialect intrinsically funny, and that Royal Academicians come out of the top drawer of painters.

Katherine Woods, New York Times: What a vast difference there is among mystery novels!  Here is one that has characterisation, humour, atmosphere, charming unexpected nuances, and the genuine interest of a novel quite apart from the question of whodunit and the spilling of gore; in short, a treasure.

Isaac Anderson, N. Y. Times Book Review: Her character drawing is excellent…  Best of all she knows how to employ humour without overplaying it.