Monday, May 24, 2010

Review: A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead

The Classics Circuit is back!  This time, it's the Golden Age of Detective Fiction and I used the opportunity to dust off a copy of A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh that was given to me three years ago by one of my closest friends who lives in Australia.  Talk about taking a long time to get around to reading a book!

A Man Lay Dead is the first book in the Inspector Alleyn series.  It was written in 1934, and from what I can gather, it is a book contemporary to the period.  I can't be sure because oddly, WWI was not mentioned even once, even in passing.  Often, I find that you can't read much that takes place during the 1930s without at least brushing on the subject of the Great War.  This book managed to do so; however, there was certainly commentary about Russia and a Russian character with a fairly bizarre accent, and that seems true to the period.

Anyway, onto the story!  Sir Hubert Handesley is famous for his country house parties, at which he provides fabulous cocktails and arranges parlor games for his guests.  This time, the game is (surprise!) Murder.  The light-hearted fun takes a turn for the macabre when one of the guests is found dead in the hall, killed by his own knife.  Everyone becomes a suspect and Inspector Alleyn of the Scotland Yard is called in to investigate the possible involvement of a Russian secret society.  He also gets to meet and befriend some of the house guests, two of whom find the detective life quite exciting.

One of my favorite things about detective fiction written in this era is the shifting social background.  There is the aftermath of the Great War, the growing suspicion of yet another war to come, shifting class structures, the fading away of the landed gentry, the power of new American money, and so much more.  For some reason, all these changes seem ideally explored via mystery novel to me.  Perhaps because the tension and suspicion between characters is often heightened by pre-existing prejudices relating to class or ethnicity, race or religion.  I don't know.  It just works.

1930s Challenge
So I was a little disappointed that Marsh's novel didn't confront any of these issues except perhaps for race (though I am not even sure she confronted that one so much as she just had a Russian character).  There was a brief mention of the class system late in the book, too, by Inspector Alleyn which I found promising enough to interest me in getting to know him better.  But for the most part, all the Big Themes that seem to show up in books of this era are missing.  Instead, the book explored a somewhat bizarre plot around the secret society and a knife that never should have left the society and other oddities of that like.

So I was not really that impressed with this book.  However, it is the first in what was a very successful series of mysteries surrounding Inspector Alleyn, so I will give Marsh another try.  I really liked Inspector Alleyn as a character and would like to get to know him better.  If the series continues to give more tidbits of information on his background (he's highly educated, started down the diplomat route, and then chose to become a detective), then I have a hunch I will be hooked pretty quickly.  For all Alleyn was very friendly and kind and polite to everyone he came across, I feel he has a Large Cross to Bear that I would like to explore in greater depth and I am pretty sure he's going to be one of those Men of Mystery that really draws me in.  I also think he has many strong feelings about things that weren't shared in this first book.  For example, he must have been in active service during World War I.  What happened to him there?  What did he do?  Did it influence his entering Scotland Yard instead of becoming a diplomat?  Alleyn also bursts out at a character about how the upper-class has an aversion to sharing information, or having anything to do with airing dirty laundry, even though often this can lead to unsolved murders or innocent people coming to harm.  I think that is very telling of Alleyn's impressions on class and justice, and I'd like to know more.

Classics Circuit
So really, for me, this book was far more about Alleyn than the plot or the mystery or anything else.  I hope to read more Marsh, if I can find her, and get to know her practical yet kind detective better.  I am excited to know where she takes Alleyn in future, and how he evolves as a character.  And I'd love, love, love to know more about his past!

This review is part of the Classics Circuit tour for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.


  1. Anonymous5/24/2010

    shame my gran isn't about any more she was a huge marsh fan well all the golden age of detectives really,can see what you say about race the christie books i ve read are similar in that respect ,only ever seen these on the tv ,all the best stu

  2. Anonymous5/24/2010

    I don't think I've ever read a detective. I'm not convinced that this is the place to start, however. I did get the impression from your review, that like you I might be more interested in the character of Alleyn, than the plot, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

  3. Anonymous5/24/2010

    I think Marsh's novels were contemporary as she is considered one of the three grand dames of the Golden Age of Detection (together with Christie and Sayers). Maybe it's that most detective novels written now about the interwar years tend to focus a lot more on the psychological and historical effect of the two wars because it's one of the ways we analyse the past and because there is a lot more historical material available for researchers. I've read quite a few of Marsh's books and certainly prefer the ones that feature both Alleyn and the painter Agatha Troy (starting with Artists in Crime) where the stories get meatier with issues about women.

  4. Awesome review! Thanks for writing it. I am not a Marsh fan at all, but your great review has definitely given me a better appreciation of her.

  5. I feel terrible that I have never heard of these books. Sorry to hear it wasn't very good though.

  6. I've heard of Marsh, but never read a review of any of her books. It sounds like this one was a bit of frustrating read for you, what with all the important messages and themes being absent. I would be very interested to see what you think of other books in this series, and to see if this one might just be a tame jumping off point for more fully developed stories. Great review Aarti!

  7. Stu- Well, if your gran was a huge Marsh fan, maybe I'll be one, too!

    Iris- No, I don't think this is the best one to start with, either. Though honestly, I feel most detective series novels don't start as strongly as they finish.

    Chasing Bawa- Yes, I think she was contemporary as well. Your point is well made- maybe people at that time were too close to the war to consider its effects quite yet.

    Randall- haha, well, I'm glad to be of service!

    Vivienne- I had never heard of her, either, until I was given one as a gift! And she seems quite prolific.

    Zibilee- Yes, I think if I can find more of her books cheaply or in the library, I'll continue. Otherwise, I'm not overly fussed.

  8. Hmmm sounds interesting but not phenomenal. I'll be watching to see what you think of the rest of the series.

  9. Nice review.
    Even if I doubt I will ever read it, I guess I need one genre that I do not read ;)

  10. I haven't read any Marsh, but if she's like Sayers and Allingham, there's a good chance that Alleyn will gain depth in later books, even if there's no direct confrontation of the weighty issues of the time. I wonder if she avoid discussion of the war because mysteries are often perceived as escapist literature (and I don't mean that in a pejorative way at all!). The war was too heavy on people's minds already, and mystery novels like this could be a way to take their minds off it.

  11. Anonymous5/24/2010

    I'm sorry this didn't live up to your hopes, but it actually sounds like one I would really enjoy. I like a fun, old-fashioned mystery.

  12. Anonymous5/25/2010

    I'm sorry that you didn't enjoy Marsh as much as you hoped. There are a great many later novels that are considerable improvements, in my mind, over "A Man Lay Dead." I think you would particularly enjoy Alleyn's wife, Agatha Troy (whom he meets and weds over the course of several books), a brilliant painter - try "Artists in Crime" or "A Clutch of Constables" as examples. My favorite Marsh ia "Death of a Peer," which I can recommend whole-heartedly.

  13. Amy- Not sure when I'll get to the rest of the series, but I'll let you know!

    Blodeuedd- True!

    Teresa- I am glad you say that as I just picked up two Allingham books! Though not in any particular order, unfortunately.

    Carol- Yes, it's definitely fun!

    Les- I will definitely keep those in mind- thanks so much!

  14. I love your paragraph about why you love detective fiction from this time period. That's what got me hooked too. What a pity this book didn't deal with those themes! I hope the rest of the series grabs you more - it sounds like it does have some potential.


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