A Country House Murder Mystery by Ngaio Marsh: Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)

Left to Right: Marsh on a Stamp, A Young Ngaio Marsh, Ngaio Marsh Theatre, which was a the University of Canterbury, New Zealand
Left to Right: Marsh on a Stamp, A Young Ngaio Marsh, Ngaio Marsh Theatre, which was a the University of Canterbury, New Zealand

“It seems to me,” said Mandrake, “that you invited stark murder to your house. Frankly I can imagine nothing more terrifying than the prospect of this week-end. What do you propose to do with them?”

“Let them enact their drama.”

Such casual and light-hearted discourse, to a well-seasoned mystery fan, is nothing but prophetic and in the succeeding pages we expect the grim reaper to strike. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942), the 11th in the Inspector Alleyn series, is set in the winter of 1940 and takes place in a country house, Highfield Manor, owned by Jonathan Royal and his behaviour could definitely be seen as highhanded. In order to fulfil his artistic urges, Jonathan, invited 8 guests. One of whom is to be the audience and the other 7 to be the cast of a living drama, which in less lofty terms entails watching people who hate each other behaving antagonistically, all the way pretending to tolerate one another to a lesser or greater degrees. In a way, this concept links to theatre in its most widest sense, a topic which Marsh knew a lot about and was involved in, returning to it several times in her novels. These guests, who are only supposed to be there for the weekend (we mystery fans know better of course) include:
• Mr Mandrake, a playwright, who has a lame foot and a fear of others finding out his real name;
• Mr Nicholas Compline, younger son and mother’s favourite, also a womaniser previously engaged to Miss Wynne, but now in a relationship with Madame Lisse and currently has a cushy job at home away from the Front;
• Mr William Compline, elder brother of Nicholas, devoted to his mother, but disliked by her, now engaged to Miss Wynne and is currently on leave from the Front;
• Dr. Francis Hart, a naturalised Austrian and plastic surgeon, whose operation on Mrs Compline went wrong and is also in a relationship with Madame Lisse;
• Madame Lisse, business rival of Lady Hersey Amblington;
• Miss Wynne;
• Mrs Compline;
• Lady Hersey Amblington, cousin of Jonathan and in the beauty treatment business.
The chains of animosity are plain to see. The question is not a question of will, but a question of who and when will get murdered. In Golden Age detective fiction, it is usual for a cast of characters to be forced into each other’s company, a circumstance which could not be foreseen or helped. But this is a very rare case of someone actively bringing people together who dislike each other.
“Accidents” begin occurring; someone shoved into an icy outdoor pool, someone else walking through a booby-trapped door. Escape is impossible as a snowstorm in true Golden Age style, like in the Mystery in White (1938) by J. Jefferson Farjeon, keeps any of the guests leaving. Arguments abound and threats are issued and it is little surprise when one of the 8 dies; skull crushed in. A key part of the puzzle is trying to identify whether the corpse was the intended victim or a case of mistaken identity. This death is followed by another puzzling catastrophe, which adds to the mystery. Luckily Inspector Alleyn and Troy are staying in the area and Mandrake and Miss Wynne battle the snow in order to reach them. With Inspector Alleyn on the job, one knows the case will be solved.
An interesting theme of the novel is how well we truly know each other and whether instead we are only seeing one version of one another. Prior to the murder the guests discuss how they would all react in a crisis, yet ironically when such a crisis occurs, it seems their predictions are erroneous. Jonathan Royal, who at the start is a little too self-assured, becomes panic-stricken and morose, unable to see beyond his own pet theories. This is something which Jonathan at the end of novel recognises in himself referring to his, ‘myopic eyes’. Whilst it seems Mandrake proves the better leader, being open to information which doesn’t fit his preconceived ideas and even tabulates a table of who had the motive and opportunity for each incident. This table of course is included in the text and can be regarded as a form of fair play.
Although I won’t reveal the solution, I think the book does show Marsh being adept with the sleight of hand. The way she focuses the investigations of others and makes certain information seem so commonplace and literarily stereotypical, that you (well me anyways) tend to disregard it or forget about it. Interestingly the title is not an abstract one and there really is a dancing footman, who plays a crucial role in establishing alibis.
As set in World War 2, the war, although not fundamental to the plot is interwoven into the dialogue. For example there is an antagonism between characters such as William, who are risking their lives on the front line, compared to those such as Nicholas who are regarded as more safer at home. Furthermore, Inspector Alleyn comments on the almost absurdity of the amount of effort they are putting into solving one murder, whilst so many are being killed in combat or at home by bombs:

“Does it seem odd to you, Fox, that we should be here so solemnly tracking down one squalid little murderer, so laboriously using our methods to peer into two deaths, while over, our heads are stretched the legions of guns? … But to hang someone now – ! … It’s almost funny”

There is also a pleasant young love interest in the story as well, centred around Miss Wynne, providing some humour and light relief:

“What you’ve go to do… is to think about other things. Get a new interest. Me for instance.”

Rating: 3.5/5 (Slightly lower rating as I felt Inspector Alleyn’s investigation was a little rushed and that despite the provision of the table, some of his information was withheld, making one wonder how he arrived at the solution so promptly.)


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