By Ngaio Marsh
First published: UK, Bles, 1937; US, Sheridan, 1940
Among the mysteries published in the last few years, three of the “bests” were written by Ngaio Marsh. This statement is based on the printed opinions of number one critics, connoisseurs, and expert clue-clutchers from Coast to Coast and in England. They include authorities no less than Will Cuppy, Dashiell Hammett, Carolyn Wells, the New Yorker, and many other qualified reporters and appraisers. Ngaio Marsh is an established magnitude – the glamour girl in the realm of super-sleuthing fiction.
In VINTAGE MURDER Miss Marsh, a New Zealander (New Zillunder, they pronounce it), is playing on the home field. The crime is the murder of the head of a British theatrical company on tour in New Zealand. The skull-crushing weapon is a jeroboam (gallon size) of good vintage champagne.
The man who turns the entire company of players inside out in order to put his positive finger on the murderer is the now familiar and genial supersleuth, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, C. I. D., New Scotlnad Yard. He happens to be on holiday in New Zealand and travels on the same train with the touring theatrical unit. The most striking clue is a small, carved green Tiki, a Maori symbol of fertility, and Inspector Alleyn’s birthday present to the leading lady.
The solution? It is fit to stump the experts, but not expert Alleyn. It’s another Ngaio Marsh, and that is the mark of the best vintage.
Based on Marsh’s own knowledge of her native New Zealand and of the theatre, this early story (her fifth) features a very Wimseycal Insp. Alleyn, visiting the North Island for his health, making very obvious attempts to avoid patronising the local police force while investigating the murder of the touring company managing director at his wife’s birthday by plummeting plonk — a method which, like the victim, is hardly hole-proof. While the serial interviews of the archly drawn actors are lively enough, the plot (attempted murder, murder and theft) is too slender to carry the book, and there is little of note in Alleyn’s detection, the mass clearing of all suspects bar one leaving the murderer in the open — and continually clearing him only increases suspicion.
Observer (Torquemada, 11th April 1937):
Optical deceit also plays an important part in Mr. Ngaio Marsh’s Vintage Murder [as it does in Mr. Carr’s The Burning Court]; for, while no secret is made as to how a jeroboam of champagne hurtled down on poor Alfie-Pooh Meyer’s head when he was giving his wife a birthday supper on the stage at Middleton, New Zealand, in what way anyone could have escaped the notice of others while causing this to happen is the crux of the detection. Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn, while taking a health holiday, becomes friendly with a touring company; this gives his creator, who is not only a native of New Zealand but also at his best with actors, the opportunity of writing his most subtle and amusing tale so far; one which definitely puts him, I think, into the thin red front line.