Every few years I make it a point to go back and read some of the classic Cozies that really made me fall in love with mysteries. Recently I went back and revisited A Man Lay Dead, the first book by Ngaio Marsh and our introduction to Inspector Roderick Alleyn, Marsh’s primary detective through most of her long career. As many of you know, I consider Marsh one of my personal favorite authors, and revisiting a classic I’m sure to love is always something of a treat.
A Man Lay Dead begins with a simple premise that quickly became one of the most common >>> a group of individuals with strong ties to one another gather for an extended party at the country estate of an older host. Though on the surface the visitors are all close friends, it quickly becomes apparent that one of them sits at the center of a web of questionable relationships and lies, and (lo and behold) he/she somehow ends up dead before the event is through.
Despite the rapid onslaught of characters and names, keeping the suspects relatively straight in your head isn’t a problem, as each is established quickly in broad strokes that should be familiar at once to any Cozy Mystery reader. Names can quickly become associated with well-established and beloved character types – Sir Hubert Handesley is quickly established as The Educated Host, his niece Angela as The Reliable Modern Girl, the young man who serves as one of the primary points of view of the novel as The Intrepid Young Journalist, and so forth. These are character types beloved for a reason – they’re well portrayed and sympathetic here, and Marsh is especially skilled at showing how uncomfortable many of them become with one another – and how they try to conceal that fact – as suspicions begins to prey on them as their police-enforced isolation lengthens.
Speaking of the police, this is also our introduction to Inspector Alleyn, though his regular assistant, Sergeant Fox, doesn’t make an appearance in this early Marsh book. Compared to the detectives of Marsh’s contemporaries, Inspector Alleyn is a relatively quiet, conservative sort. He certainly doesn’t employ the flamboyant manner of a Poirot or the delicate social machinations of a Marple. Instead he is a prime example of the “educated investigator”, likely serving as one of the inspirations for later characters such as Thaw’s Inspector Morse, another character who perhaps possessed a bit more education than most people would expect from a police officer of those times. Though Alleyn’s presence might be a bit less pronounced than some of his more dynamic peers in the Cozy world, this isn’t necessarily a negative – instead it serves to make the mystery itself more of a star, as the reader is encouraged to focus more on the business at hand instead of the eccentric performances of the detective.
And I suppose that really summarizes Marsh’s strongest point – the mystery is the star, in the end, and Marsh writes strong mysteries that will often leave you guessing right up until the very end. A Man Lay Dead is a classic mystery by a classic author, and as such (I think) should be read by any fan of Cozy Mysteries.
P.S. The Inspector Allyen Mysteries television series is really, really good!