21.7.10

Ngaio Marsh's Final Curtain


Born in New Zealand, Ngaio Marsh divided her time between England and her native land. Awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1949, honoured as Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1966, and named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1978, Marsh -- like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham -- produced cozy detective novels during the Golden Age. In addition to painting, Marsh also wrote, acted in, directed, and produced plays. Not surprisingly the arts, particularly the theatre, figure prominently in her detective novels. Over the course of half a century, Ngaio Marsh wrote 32 mystery novels featuring Scotland Yard detective, Roderick Alleyn. Marsh was one of the few mystery novelists of her time who regularly appeared on best-seller lists. Her books can still be found in bookstores and libraries today.

In Final Curtain (Marsh’s 14th novel) Agatha Troy Alleyn is asked to paint Sir Henry Ancred’s portrait on the occasion of his 75th birthday. The action, in typical Golden-Age fashion, is set in the British country mansion of the aristocratic Ancreds. A series of perplexing events occur, followed by two mysterious deaths. In the first half of the novel, Troy turns amateur detective, trying to piece together unexplained incidents. Her husband, Inspector Alleyn, is subsequently asked to officially investigate the murders.

As an ingeniously plotted and intellectually challenging novel, Final Curtain is a typical clue-puzzle mystery. The enclosed country-mansion setting provides a self-contained circle of suspects, most of them family members of the first victim. The ending is truly surprising.

Chief Inspector Alleyn is a Scotland Yard detective, an Oxford-educated man of noble birth. As Rahn points out, he is a transitional figure, “combining the traits of the pre-World War II, gifted amateur gentleman sleuth with the rank-and-file post-war professional policeman” (1995, 141). Alleyn’s foil and sidekick, Inspector Fox, plays the stodgy Watson role. Elizabeth George’s paired police detectives are successors to Marsh’s Alleyne and Fox.

Unlike most classic mysteries, Final Curtain does not begin with the discovery of a murder. In fact, the first death does not occur until halfway through the novel. Marsh paves the way for later events by depicting the strained relationships among family members. The book is a skilful combination of a novel of manners and a detective story. Marsh gently satirizes the insularity and pretentiousness of the British aristocracy while unfolding the mystery. Characters unwittingly reveal their true natures through dialogue that is skilfully crafted.

The petty scheming, intrigues, and jealousies of this large extended family provide ample material for Marsh’s ironic social commentary. “As an outsider looking in at English customs and mores,” claims McDorman, Ngaio Marsh “added a dimension of objective commentary on social conventions that, quite arguably, took her fiction beyond the detective formula and into the realm of the novel of manners” (1991, 1).

The world of Final Curtain is dominated by the theatre. Most of the family members are actors or are in some way connected with the stage. Sir Henry poses as Macbeth for his portrait, and enjoys quoting lines from the play. Numerous references to the superstitions surrounding the Shakespearean tragedy lend an air of dramatic foreboding to the action. Sir Henry, like Macbeth, is a larger-than-life figure, destined for a similar disastrous end.

The Ancred family is associated with artificiality, theatricality, and outward appearances. The staged behaviour and carefully masked performances of family members makes it difficult to identify the actual murderer. Marsh’s deft interweaving of drama and mystery produces a clever and captivating novel.

The Times identified Marsh as “one of those writers who, during the 1930s, raised the detective novel to a high level of literary art” (1982). She wrote with elegance, wit and insight, using “theatre settings and people to accent her palette of violence and suspense” (McDorman 1991, 132).

Marsh, Ngaio. Final Curtain. 1947. London: HarperCollins, 1999.

McDorman, Kathryne Slate. Ngaio Marsh. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

“Obituary: Dame Ngaio Marsh; Crime Novelist and Influence on New Zealand Drama.” The Times. February 19, 1982.

Rahn, B. J. “Ngaio Marsh: The Detective Novelist of Manners.” The Armchair Detective 28, no. 2 (1995): 141-147.