Overture to Death (Ngaio Marsh)

By Ngaio Marsh

First published: UK, Bles, 1939; US, Lee Furman, 1939

Blurb (UK)

Marsh - Overture to Death
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

Ngaio Marsh (her name is pronounced Nyo) is a detective novelist of the very front rank – a writer of intelligence and style, gifted with a fine sense of character and drama as well as the ability to devise really ingenious plots.  This new novel, with which she joins the Crime Club, is a story that should satisfy the most exacting detective connoisseur.


OVERTURE TO DEATH is set in a small village parish which is in the throes of getting up a play to raise money for the Young People’s Friendly Circle.  The question now under bitter discussion is, Who shall play the overture: Miss Campanula, the wealthy spinster of the village, or Eleanor Prentice, who keeps house for the squire.  Eleanor Prentice wins, but on the night of the performance she is found crying with a bad finger.  Miss Campanula steps triumphantly into the breach, plays the first three notes of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, puts her foot on the soft pedal, and dies – shot between the eyes.  The problem is astonishingly well worked out.

Blurb (US)

Marsh - Overture to Death US.JPG
Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC

With reverberations of praise of DEATH IN A WHITE TIE still in the air, this New Zealand author who has established herself in London and in America as a writer of detective novels for the connoisseur, presents a third book to her American public.



The same skill with which Miss Marsh painted such a brilliant background of the London social season in her previous work, is applied to a less pretentious but thoroughly engaging group of people in OVERTURE TO DEATH.  The scene of the story is an English village, and the characters are a dozen or more of tis assorted inhabitants, including the village squire, his son Henry who is in love with the Rector’s daughter, the local medico, the squire’s spinster cousin who runs his household, the town’s leading spinster, Idris Campanula, and others.  Of course there’s the familiar and charming Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard.

So cleverly is the stage set, and so well drawn and human the characters, that when one of them is killed in an astonishing manner right before the eyes of the others, the reader can almost feel himself among those present.  The murder, baffling and bizarre, is a piece of consummate artistry made plausible by the convincing psychological explanation of the underlying motives.  Such disparate items are involved in the plot as an amateur theatrical, an onion, a sore finger, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, a water pistol, aspidistras and repressed emotions.

OVERTURE TO DEATH, which is being published simultaneously here and abroad, is a worthy offering to Ngaio Marsh’s audiences.

My review

Her masterpiece. The murder by exploding piano is splendid; the plot and timetable complex; and the characterisation superb, especially of middle-aged lovelorn females. The murderer can be spotted before the end — but what a murderer! The solution is brilliantly clued, and the reader will want to kick himself when he guesses the truth about the onion.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 11th March 1939):


Miss Ngaio Marsh has again written a model detective story.  An eminent writer of this class of fiction recently criticised Miss Joanna Cannan’s first detective story on the ground that she concealed the real character of the murderer and gave inadequate clues to his identity.  But these habits are all too common even among more experienced writers of detective stories.  Miss Marsh is an exception to the rule and, indeed, in her present novel she tends in the opposite direction and makes clues and motives sufficiently transparent for any intelligent reader to discover the criminal.  In this case the novel is so well written that this transparency need not detract from the reader’s enjoyment.  Nevertheless it is clear that the novelist who writes detective stories is nowadays being confronted with an awkward dilemma; if he conceals the motive and is parsimonious with the clues he is accused of cheating; if he makes plain the motive and is generous with clues he is liable to be blamed for presenting too simple a problem.

Miss Marsh’s Overture to Death is admirable in its unity.  Seven leading citizens of a village decide to produce a play in aid of a church cause.  Two elderly maiden ladies are rivals for the right to play the overture.  One of them offers Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor, the other Nevin’s Venetian Suite.  Miss Prentice, sister of the Acting Chief Constable, wins a bitter contest with the Venetian Suite, but just before the performance a bad finger prevents her from playing and her place is taken by her rich friend Miss Campanula.  But no sooner had Miss Campanula struck her three opening chords than a revolver rigged up inside the piano fires and shoots her through the head.  For whom was the bullet intended, Miss Campanula or Miss Prentice?  Which of the amateur actors constructed the death trap?  Chief Inspector Alleyn comes from Scotland Yard to investigate, and by the usual process of uncovering the seamy side of the suspects’ lives and checking their alibis he finds the murderer.  Alleyn is not yet married, but apart from one love letter, his romance, which figured so prominently in Miss Marsh’s last novel, is mercifully thrust into the background.  Another and simpler love interest takes its place.


Observer (William Blunt, 12th March 1939):


A detective story without death is like a game of bridge played for love.  Somebody else’s diamonds are but ivory counters.  They do not seem to matter very much, because the reader finds it hard to think of them as his, and still more hard to value them in terms of something that matters to himself.  But death matters to everybody.  The corpse has lost, the murderer has at stake, something that the reader himself has and holds most dear and knows that someday he will lose.  Unless, that is, the reader is very young.  It was Hazlitt’s brother who pointed out that “no young man thinks he shall ever die”, a likely reason why a taste for murder stories is almost a sign of maturity.

Miss Ngaio Marsh, knowing very well that in detective stories death is the essential, knows also that, whereas in most such stories the single problem is to find the way from the corpse to the murderer, a no less interesting problem is to find in a group of ordinary people the predestined murderee.  The first ninety pages of this book are just about as interesting as they can well be.  Nobody has been killed.  X marks the spot where no body was found, but, like a St. Elmo’s fire, flickers deceptively from head to head.  Every character in the little group has its own humanity.  One of them is doomed, but which?  Miss Marsh does not shirk her difficulties.  She shows us a tangle of small hates and rivalries recognisable by all of us, harmless, laughable, no motive for murder there, and then something jerks the lot into a definite unbearable pattern, opportunity offers, and a murderer is made.  Miss Marsh has earned her place on the Front Bench.  She surrounds the problem with atmosphere, she presents all her clues fairly, she is not too lavish with red herrings, she does not exasperate by choosing the least likely person as the murderer (this fault mars the work of many good practitioners).  Finally, her detective, Alleyn, is intelligent but not so stupidly intelligent as to work in a fourth dimension whither her readers cannot follow him.  He has charm, but does not flourish it like a banner.  The texture of this book is such that it will be a pleasure to read it again.  But, seeing that Miss Marsh has made a delightful ninety pages out of the preliminary question, “Who is to be murdered?” it does seem rather a pity that her publishers should blandly give away the answer in the blurb facing the title-page.