Death and the Dancing Footman / Ngaio Marsh
Penguin: Hammondsworth, 1949, c1942.
And now for the last of the three novels in a row featuring obsessive mother-son relationships... but this one was a little different. There wasn't so much of the psychological examination of the relationship as there was in the previous two titles (Edith's Diary and Beyond this Point are Monsters) but that could be because this is a much earlier title, before the vogue for abnormal psychology took over.
It's a funny little book, another with an irresistible green Penguin cover. I'd always meant to read it; the title was so quirky. And that dancing footman is a vital element in the story, such a goofy image, but one example of how someone's unexpected silliness can get in the way of the perfect crime. So there you go -- always give in to your urges to do ridiculous things, you just may be saving someone's life ;)
Anyhow, this story is the perfect country house murder tale. Jonathan Royal of Highfold Manor in Dorset is bored...he decides to create a "dramatic party" by inviting a handful of people for a weekend, people carefully selected for their mutual antipathies -- from sibling rivalries to mistresses and ex-fiancees in the same room, even a woman distraught by her terribly botched cosmetic surgery and the doctor responsible. Royal also invites his newest protege, playwright Aubrey Mandrake (who has a secret of his own: the appalling fact that he was born with the name Stanley Footling) with the intention to provide Mandrake with a dramatic set piece.
Of course, all goes wrong, and the antipathies that Royal thought might be fun to watch clashing within civilized limits run over those limits and result in a murder. Who then, in this closed community, is responsible? The many overlapping hatreds result in a plethora of likely murderers. I know I couldn't choose one with certainty. The isolation of the house, and a sudden snowstorm, keep them enclosed in a fearful bubble, until finally the snow begins to relent and Mandrake takes the car out on a dreadful road to fetch Inspector Alleyn, who happens to be staying with friends in the nearest village.
Inspector Alleyn doesn't play a large role in this story; rather, the reader sees the actions and motivations of each character and tries to puzzle things out, until the arrival of the Inspector late in the book. With each of the relationships full of secrets and violence, even the ones that are supposed to be congenial, there is a lot to figure out here. The mention of the dancing footman reminds the reader that these people are not really so isolated as they seem to believe; there is also a house full of servants. And one of these servants unintentionally interferes in the carefully arranged alibi of the murderer.
I enjoyed this book, and its setting within a casually cruel society of postwar wealthy country-people. The veneer of civilized interaction is pretty shallow, and as they are prodded, they break through to their real feelings -- leading to an engaging read, full of prickly moments and dramatic events. Great fun, but with real violence that actually has an effect on those characters left standing.