Death in a White Tie (Ngaio Marsh)

By Ngaio Marsh

First published: UK, Bles, 1938; US, Lee Furman, 1938

Blurb (UK)

Marsh - Death in a White Tie.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

The author’s inventiveness and versatility is brilliantly sustained in this book.

Detective-Inspector Alleyn cuts his way through a mesh of murder and blackmail to discover who killed his friend, Lord Robert Gospell, after the Carados’ ball.

Blurb (US)

“Let us have more of Ngaio Marsh.” – N. Y. Times Book Review.  And here it is – another exciting and intelligent mystery novel by Ngaio Marsh!

The action of DEATH IN A WHITE TIE takes place at the height of the London Season.  Here Miss Marsh is very much at home for, although a New Zealander by birth, she has lived in London and been hostess to many wellknown Britishers, including members of England’s Royal Family and Parliament, famous authors, artists and actors.

Marsh - Death in a White Tie US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Again, as in ARTISTS IN CRIME, the author has achieved that remarkable realism in background and characterization, coupled with crime and detection that make one sit up.  Miss Marsh knows how to make her characters live and breathe, with her brilliant wit and acute perception, and she can “mow them down” in an equally artistic manner.  In this new novel blackmailers are at work “doing” Society while Society is doing the Season.  You are whisked from an atmosphere of crackling fires, bubbling champagne and sparkling conversation to gruesome murder – colder and more penetrating than a dank London fog.  Enter Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn, that terribly good-looking and remote gentleman of ARTISTS IN CRIME, who gets this new “perplexer” ironed out so neatly as to satisfy the most pernickety of us.

My review

Curiously reminiscent of Helen McCloy’s Dance of Death, this sophisticated and amusing tale of unfashionable blackmail in fashionable society (i.e., wallowing in titles) ranks highly among the early Ngaio Marshes. The author shows good management of the large cast of characters any one of whom may have suffocated Lord Robert Gospell in the taxi on the way home from Lady Carados’s daughter’s coming-out party, and the inquiries into their movements are as carefully orchestrated as the steps of a dance. But the central clue is weakly handled; its naming at too early a juncture allows the alert reader to spot the villain, thereby robbing the tense and logical climax of its impact.  There’s also little ingenuity – as a mystery, it’s competent without being inspired.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 4th September 1938):


Ngaio Marsh’s last two or three detective stories have been so good that I hesitate to say that Death in a White Tie is her best yet; but I freely admit that no previous case of hers has so completely and fairly baffled me, or given me such incidental pleasure in the reading.  In this dark but diverting history of a London season, of age coming back in order that youth may come out, she makes use of an old and excellent formula for murder presentation.  Instead of hurriedly introducing us to a corpse whose qualities, sympathetic or unsympathetic, we have to take on trust, she carefully builds up a really delightful character and gives us seventy pages in which to get to know him; only then does she allow him to be killed, and by that time we are as eager to avenge him as is his old friend, and our old friend, Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn.  Alleyn finishes the case in a sleepless forty-eight hours, and it is surely a compliment to the author’s power of creating an illusion of reality that we should, while delighting to watch the obstructive antics of the black, grey and piebald sheep whom he has to interview, yet share his irritation at their slow reluctance to come white.  I, personally, was also irritated to discover that, at the end of these interviews, Alleyn had picked up three small but deadly indications which I had missed entirely.  Those who remember that very human painter, Agatha Troy, R.A., against whose “hard unfaith” Alleyn badly bruised his heart in Artists in Crime, will be pleased to meet her again in the present book, and to read of the eventual fall of Troy.  Ngaio Marsh loves fine love just as she loves fine English; this makes one the more sorry to note that, just occasionally, a sort of aesthetic prudery, a not very tolerant distaste for the broader aspects of writing and photography, can stampede her into false assumption; and even into an incorrect use of words.


The Times (6th September 1938):


Whatever the comparative achievements of men and women in other spheres of art, in detective fiction the women certainly occupy a proud position.  Indeed, it would be difficult to get together a team of sleuths to beat those created by the talented woman writers of to-day.  What opening pair could match Lord Peter Wimsey and Poirot, each of them a complete master at all points of the game?  Then there are Miss Allingham’s Campion (not such an outstanding personality, but a safe scorer); Miss Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley (almost, if not quite, the sole woman detective of genius); Miss Atwood Taylor’s pleasantly eccentric Asey Mayo; Mrs. Huxley’s Superintendent Vachell.

There is, too, Miss Ngaio Marsh, whose new book should certainly win Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn a place in the team.  Death in a White Tie introduces crime to the London Season.  Blackmail among the aristocracy sets the plot moving and the murder of a well-known figure in Society in a taxi after a ball quickens its pace.  Miss Marsh has a sure hand with her characters, from Lady Carados herself down to Miss Harris, the secretary whose excess of modesty provides one of the most entertaining passages; and she is at home in her chosen milieu.  The dénouement falls a little short of the realism of the remainder of the book, but there is not question but that it is exciting to the last degree.  Indeed, the writing throughout has a distinction that puts the author in the front rank of crime story writers.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 10th September 1938):


Of the four books under review this week only the first is a detective story in the fullest sense of the term: the other three [Alice Tilton’s The Cut Direct, Francis Beeding’s The Big Fish and Jackson Budd’s Precious Company] are lively and entertaining adventure stories designed to amuse the tired business man but not to provide him with intellectual puzzles.

 Death in a White Tie is the best type of detective story and well up to Miss Marsh’s previous high standard.  The characters are human and only the criminal’s motives are unnatural; but then, if they were not, he would scarcely be a criminal.  Lord Robert Gospell, known as “Bunchy” to his friends, moves in the highest social circles but does a little private investigation on the side.  His friend, the cultured and well-born Chief Inspector Alleyn, asks him to make some enquiries into a blackmail case.  But just after Lord Robert has telephoned Alleyn to report on his progress he is murdered and delivered in a taxi-cab at Scotland Yard.  With the aid of the solid but intelligent Inspector Fox, and by dint of researches which extend from night clubs to country vicarages, the Chief Inspector courteously gets his man.  The clues which guide him to the solution are fairly presented to the reader, but they are by no means obvious.

 Death in a White Tie has only one serious defect.  The Chief Inspector is made to pursue his love affair with the lady artist unprepossessingly called Troy which began in an earlier novel.  It would be a pity if the example set by Miss Sayers with Lord Peter Wimsey of entangling her detective of seemingly settled and delightful bachelor habits in a serious-minded love affair were to be regularly followed by all writers of detective stories.  We leave Chief Inspector Alleyn suitably affianced at the end of this story; but romance is not Miss Marsh’s métier, and some of the dialogue leaves one a bit hot under the collar.  It is to be hoped, with all due respect to Miss Sayers, that when Alleyn is next confronted with a corpse it will not be in the course of his honeymoon.


Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 30th September 1938):

A certain element of unreality always hangs about stories of wholesale blackmailing, for though, no doubt, we may be cynically sure that most people have done many things they would rather not have known, it is impossible to suppose that one person—or one gang—could obtain knowledge and proof, instantly available, of so many and so various misdemeanours.  Apart from this essential weakness in the plot, Ngaio Marsh has written in Death in a White Tie an exceedingly clever and interesting tale with some good character studies, one of the best being that of the victim, Lord Robert Gospell, known as “Bunchy”.  The story passes in London society, all the characters are of high social standing, including even the detective, Chief Inspector Alleyn, who oddly enough, has gravitated to Scotland Yard from the Foreign Office.  It is really a shock to find so good a writer as Miss Marsh making Alleyn ask the Assistant Commissioner for a “blank warrant”.  Surely Miss Marsh does not really imagine that the police keep a stock of blank warrants they fill up and issue at their own discretion?


Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 30th September 1938):

Ngaio Marsh goes from strength to strength, and Inspector Roderick Alleyn is well on the way to becoming my favourite gentleman-detective.  Unobtrusive, polite and efficient, he has none of Nero Wolfe’s flamboyance, but he is no less severe upon the more disagreeable of his suspects: his interviews with the witnesses in this case are quite exceptionally good, bringing out so many unsuspected facets of character that a certain weakness in the plot goes almost unnoticed.  Alleyn is investigating blackmail in high society: blackmail leads to the murder of his friend “Bunchy” Gospell, a charming Edwardian gossip: one of the criminals is given us early, and the other is thrown at our heads in a double-bluff that does not, I feel, really come off.  The transformation scene at the end, which takes place at New Scotland Yard, is a bit difficult to credit: and my spies report that the All Souls blazer only exists in Miss Marsh’s fertile imagination.  Otherwise Death in a White Tie gets full marks.  I am glad that Roderick has tied it up with Agatha Troy: detectives should either be happily married or, like their great exemplar Sherlock Holmes, not interested.


New York Herald-Tribune Books:

The best mystery story we have read in a month of Sundays; so excellent at all points as to make almost any other current offering look dull as dishwater…  If you don’t read it, that’s your hard luck…


Raleigh (N. C.) News:

Read it!  You really should … a collector’s item, a veritable ‘must’…  Like Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie she has raised this type of writing to the level of good literature…  For those whose taste is cloyed with the average, here is a vintage wine which will be savoured long after the book is closed.


Dashiell Hammett:

Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Death in a White Tie’ is the best detective story I have read this year.