By Ngaio Marsh
First published: UK, Collins, 1949; US, Little Brown, 1949, as A Wreath for Rivera
Gala Night at the Metronome, gayest of all the fashionable night-clubs, with Breezy Bellairs and his Boys, slickest of swing bands! Tonight there is a very special attraction, for it is rumoured that the eccentric Lord Pastern is appearing with the Boys as temporary timpanist. Among the after-theatre crowd in the softly-lit, over-heated dance room Chief-Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard and his wife Troy are enjoying a private celebration. While watching the gyrations of the Boys as they put over their latest number in the famous Breezy Bellairs manner, the celebrated detective suddenly realises that he has unwittingly combined business with pleasure; for Carlos Rivera, the piano-accordionist, is murdered before his startled eyes. A superbly written story with fascinating characters, Swing, Brother, Swing is a worthy successor to a distinguished line of detective novels by the inimitable Ngaio Marsh.
The first time I read this, I found it a drag; I’d just discovered John Dickson Carr, and wanted to finish it so I could read The Red Widow Murders.
I reread it in 2002/03. One of Marsh’s good ones: stylish and sophisticated milieu (night-club scene), amusing characters (particularly the Pasterns), sharp dialogue — and a good ‘impossible’ crime, not too distantly related to Enter a Murderer. The murderer is not too difficult to spot, but the solution rings new changes on an old dodge: several Chestertonian flourishes (SPOILER the baton, the piano-accordion). Dope smuggling and yellow journalism hover in the background, and there is a good time-table.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 5th November 1949):
Take an eccentric peer, a marquis for preference; throw him into a jazz-band well lined with bad characters; mix in his aristocratic relatives, add a hypodermic of dope, and stir furiously until a murder takes shape; then skim at leisure, and serve with a pinch of salt. Miss Marsh has a wonderfully light hand at this sort of dish. Give her a nice, ripe peer, like Lord Pastern in Swing, Brother, Swing, and she will serve up a most appetising plateful. Only when you start to sort out the murder from the trimmings do you wonder—what is the meat? Baleine again? Chief Inspector Alleyn, who actually witnesses the crime, takes half the book to solve it, and I can only urge readers, while he is doing so, to get on with their skimming.
Elizabeth Bowen in the Tatler:
What a first-rate story-teller we have here; in the top rank of writers of English detective fiction.
All is not harmony in the dance band. Not least among the problem personalities is a truculent nobleman of rather violent and transient enthusiasm, the latest for swing. The plot is clever but miss Marsh’s virtuosity in building up suspense is the thing.
Her character drawing is excellent… Best of all she knows how to employ humour without overplaying it.