Photo Finish (1980) by Ngaio Marsh

Photo Finish

Photo Finish (1980) is definitely an apt title for this novel, with its’ paparazzi subplot and last minute revelation of the solution. Although nothing on racing, which is another obvious connotation of the title. This story is mostly set in New Zealand, like Marsh’s other novels, Colour Scheme (1943), Died in the Wool (1945) and Vintage Murder (1937). However our story begins in Sydney, where the famous opera singer, Isabella Sommita (Italian for summit) is being plagued by a rogue photographer who repeatedly takes pictures of her in a bad light. This pursuer goes by the name of Strix. This is rather an apropos name, originating in Ancient Greek and Roman legends, pertaining to a bird (Strix is the Greek for Owl) of bad-omen which consumes human blood and flesh. Like an owl which has extensive vision, Strix, our phantom photographer, manages to observe Isabella closely, waiting for the appropriate moments to snap a picture before disappearing. Strix it would appear is consumed by following Isabella all over the world in order to capture her in the worst possible light.

As a character Isabella Sommita is a familiar face, embodying the worst of celebrity culture and lifestyle, focusing on physical appearance and flying into temperamental rages. It is perhaps not surprising then it has been adapted for the stage by Fiona Farrell in her 2013 production, Snap! Moreover, in the novel, Sommita’s entourage also includes recognisable types with Montague Reece, her rich lover/patron, who thankfully is unflappable in the face of intense emotion; Ben Ruby, Isabella’s manager; Maria the indispensable confidante and dresser and Rupert Bartholomew, a young, naïve, opera writer. Isabella instantaneously becomes obsessed with Rupert, taking him on as secretary and lover, as well as deciding to perform his opera, The Alien Corn.

The plot then temporarily deviates to England, to the home of Troy and Alleyn, where it just so happens both have been invited to Montague Reece’s new home on an island in New Zealand. Troy is invited in order to paint a picture of Isabella, whilst Alleyn is asked to find out who Strix is, an invitation supported by the Yard as a good cover for checking up on a potential drugs selling connection. This part of the book does seem a bit forced and it gets odder when Troy wears a jumpsuit. For me, Troy and Alleyn don’t really fit in the 80s and seem more at home pre-1960s.

On arriving at Montague’s home, tensions are already high, with many people including Rupert, realising that his opera, which will be performed to a small gathering in a couple of days at the mansion is terrible and Isabella won’t entertain the thought of cancelling. Even worse, Strix has struck again writing a letter supposedly from Isabella discussing her plastic surgery. It is even suggested that Strix has managed to get on to the island. Yet the show must go on and it does, but it is not soon after that screams and shouts are heard, as Isabella has been found dead, stabbed in the chest, a photograph of herself pierced through. Marsh’s artistic flair is prominent in the description of the body:

‘From beneath this a thin trace of blood had slid down towards naked ribs like a thread of cotton. The Sommita’s face, as seen from the room, was upside down. Its eyes bulged and its mouth was wide open. The tongue protruded as if at the moment of death she had pulled a gargoyle’s grimace at her killer.’

Such a vignette comes across as detached and impersonal. Moreover, it presents Isabella’s unpleasant characteristics and features in a cold unflattering light, much like Strix’s photographs. Unsurprisingly since Troy features in the novel significantly, more classical artistic and cultural comments are made and unlike 80s jumpsuits, this seems to be a world more befitting of Troy and Alleyn and possibly of Marsh too. A small glimpse of Marsh’s tastes can be seen in her selection of items for the BBC radio show, Desert Island Discs, which she was a guest on in 1968. Her favourite track was Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D Major by Bach, her book of choice, an anthology of poetry and her luxury item, two Chinese figures of musicians.

In true classic mystery style the island quickly becomes cut off due to a storm and the telephones lines are down. It is up to Inspector Alleyn to take charge, in the absence of the New Zealand police. What is clear to Inspector Alleyn from the outset is that this was a crime of vengeance and that the killer and Strix are not trespassers to the island, but are of the household.

Added to the already high pile of past grievances, which Alleyn and Troy encountered towards Isabella and the suspicious behaviour of some of the guests, another issue is brought to the limelight, that of a feud between Isabella’s family, the Pepitone’s and the Rossi’s, another family. Was this death, another episode in this dispute? This element of the story did seem to appear out of nowhere, except for the presence of many Italian characters, but as the story progresses, it becomes more plausible.

In order to solve the crime Alleyn embarks with the aid of the New Zealand police on an experiment, which purports to be of high dramatic quality, but did fall a bit flat for me. The revelation of the solution at the end, although has a surprising twist, did lack excitement and tension for me, with the novel concluding in a rather vague and abstract way with Troy commenting on the countryside. So for the me this book didn’t gallop towards the finish line, requiring a photo finish, but rather limped towards the end.

Rating: 2.5/5 (Inspector Alleyn’s solution felt too obviously like a rabbit was being pulled out of a hat and I don’t think this plot was as strong as some of Marsh’s earlier novels).


  1. Male jumpsuits were a mid 1970s clothing trend. By 1980 they were passé –if not utterly laughable — for men. Starting in 1979 through the early 1980s it was all about the preppie look, at least in the US. Marsh was several years behind the times in trying to seem contemporary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Personally I would start with her earlier work, her novels from the 50s and 60s onwards tend to be less good in my opinion, although there is the odd one such as Scales of Justice (1955) and Clutch of Constables (1968) which are probably an exception to this rule. Favourites of mine would be A Man Lay Dead (1934), The Nursing Home Murder (1935), Death in a White Tie (1938) and Surfeit of Lampreys (1941). I would definitely avoid her novel Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954), which is probably the worst Marsh novel I have read.


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