Some – or perhaps most – books one reads for the sake of what it say on the tin – algebra text-books for the sake of algebra, romance novels to enjoy a love story… Then there are those books one reads for… something else.
Take for instance Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries.
Marsh was an eclectic lady from New Zealand: a painter, an actress, a courageous director, a drama teacher, and one of the queens of crime of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. The stage was her true passion, and in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties she was a leading figure of New Zealand’s theatre, daring enough to stage Shakespeare in modern dress as early as 1942, and to (triumphantly) tour Australia with a play by “difficult” Italian author Luigi Pirandello. So it’s not quite a shock that her fictional detective, the very upper-class Inspector Roderick Alleyn, bears the name of a great Elizabethan actor, nor are we surprised in observing that, out of her 32 Alleyn mysteries, a good third has to do with theatres, actors, directors, playwrights, first nights and rehearsals.
And a very good thing it is, because Miss Marsh knows her theatrical stuff, and writes it delightfully. Her characters are entirely convincing, her settings are vibrant, and her incidents and wealth of detail are those of a long acquaintance with life onstage and backstage. There’s nothing clichéd or conventional in her theatres and theatre-folks – so much so that often the depiction of backstage life steals the show from the whodunnit. Which may annoy dedicated mystery-buffs, but is an endless – and diverse – delight for theatre buffs.
Diverse, yes – because Miss Marsh’s stage stories come in a variety of flavours.
Take for instance Opening Night – whose heroine, a penniless and somewhat discouraged actress from New Zealand, takes on a dresser’s job in a London theatre, with a new play’s first night looming a week away. The Vulcan theatre is old and neglected, the dressing rooms dusty, the playwright unreasonable, the whole production rickety, and the tension thick as porridge. When the murder happens, we see it more than everything as yet another hindrance to the début… And yes, Alleyn may be very much your standard gentleman detective – but the frustrated actor-director, the terminally nervous ingenue, the fifty-something character actor still playing the juvenile by dint of grease paint, the keeper’s untidy cubbyhole, the gloomy corridors, the rivalries, the creative flashes, the last-minute tweaks and the dirty cups in the sink – it’s all so very real, so much more vivid than the whodunnit!
Death at the Dolphin is a quite another kettle of fish. Do you know what every struggling playwright and every aspiring director worth their salt dream of? Well it happens to young Peregrine Jay: he serendipitously finds himself restoring and then directing an old theatre in Southwark, with an unlimited budget and the chance to open with a production of his own Shakespeare-themed play. Death at the Dolphin is a backstage Cinderella, complete with a bizarre Fairy Godmother… well, and a murder too – but frankly: were anyone to give me a theatre on these conditions, would I let a trifling murder sour it all? And indeed, Perry Jay… No, I’m being unfair. Being a nice boy, Perry is duly upset by the murder – but the general atmosphere rather takes it in stride. Blood notwithstanding, the Dolphin is a bright and cheerful place, peopled with temperamental but (mostly) charming eccentrics. The dialogues are sparkling, the humour subtle, and the countdown to first night sizzles with excitement.
A different world from Opening Night – so much so that I have long thought Death at the Dolphin to be a youthful work, compared to the more mature and jaded Opening Night… But no, it’s the other way around. It’s just Miss Marsh exploring the low and highs of stage life, its different colours.
In the early Eighties, as she made plans to resurrect Perry Jay and the whole Dolphin for Light Thickens, she wrote to a friend that she doubted there would be much interest in such a book, outside of the theatre set. On the contrary, it turned out to be a huge success. Again, the mystery is buried in and functional to a kind of detailed diary of an ill-fated production of Macbeth. So very detailed, in fact, that a biographer called it Marsh’s third production of the Scottish Tragedy. And indeed, it is, more than anything, a tale of rehearsals, struggles, ideas, clashing temperaments, superstitions, and the way the English stage has changed over the decades. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m sure there are better mysteries out there. But for a fine and affectionate depiction of backstage life – with some real blood thrown in – one could do much worse than try Ngaio Marsh’s stories.