As is usual with Ngaio Marsh’s work, this novel opens strongly, especially since it is set within her home territory of the theatre. Peregrine Jay, director and playwright, has a narrow escape when he falls down a hole in the blitzed out Dolphin theatre, a building which Marsh treats as a living organism, which at present is one which is ‘dying’ and gives ‘protracted groan[s]’. Luckily for Jay, the owner and famous millionaire recluse, Vassily Conducis is on the scene to fish him out and on top of that also agrees to the renovation of the theatre, oh and give Jay the job of running the theatre. This encounter also leads to another interesting revelation and that is a letter and glove, the latter of which is fabled to have been made for Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. Readers and Jay alike begin to wonder if this is too good to be true.
The events of this novel take place over a couple of years. The narrative jumps ahead to when the theatre has been refurbished and Jay is in charge of staging a play he wrote himself based around the glove, which in the interim has been proved to be genuine. Like many of theatre based mysteries there are many antagonisms within the cast due to past grievances and current relationship break ups. Inspector Alleyn at this point makes a brief appearance when the glove is stationed inside a display case/safe within the theatre. Again no crime has occurred yet and again the reader waits to see when underlying tensions will burst out into violence. Six months into the production it seems the glove is to be sold to an American buyer. But on the very last night of the glove residing in the theatre, death strikes leaving a watchman dead, a child-actor critically ill and the safe empty. Jay and one of the actresses’, Emily Dunne, are an engaging pair and it is a pity they become side-lined in the last part of the book. However, their initial reaction to the crimes is an interesting one:
‘I can’t get on top of this. Jobbins. That appalling kid? Shakespeare’ note and the glove. All broken and destroyed or stolen. Isn’t it beastly, all of it? What are human beings? What’s the thing that makes monsters of us all?’
‘It’s out of our country. We’ll have to play it by ear.’
‘No, but we act it. It’s our raw material – Murder. Violence. Theft. Sexual greed. They’re commonplace to us… But confront us with the thing itself! It’s as if a tractor has rolled over us.’
I enjoyed this brief moment on contrasting reality with fiction and in a way it partially mirrors the reader who is comfortable reading about murders on the page but is perhaps less prepared for facing the real thing.
There are several lines of inquiry for Inspector Alleyn in this case ranging from a fanatical lover of antiquarian objects being kept in their home countries, a mischievous boy, a lover scorned, an elusive and mysterious theatre patron to a yachting accident long in the past. Unfortunately, as has happened with many Marsh novels I have read, the investigation side of the novel is a little disappointing, lacking in excitement. A scene where suspects are invited to visit the injured child-actor in hospital builds up expectations of drama and tension as the reader waits to see if the child will provide the key to solving the crimes. However, when the killer is revealed, it is too quick and lacklustre, with the choice of killer being unsatisfactory. Again, the solution was okay, but the end of the book fell flat for me, which is a pity as the beginning of the story was strong and Marsh is an expert at recreating the world of the theatre. Although I will say that Marsh did fool me with regards to an early overt clue she places at the start of the book which I misinterpreted.