Death at the Theatre in Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Dolphin (1967)

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.

Death at the Dolphin

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.

Rating: 3.75/5


  1. I’ve been mulling theatre-set crimes lately, partly from the perspective of (as Poirot would have had it) everyone being there without need of a reason: the cast and crew can be any collection of random people brought together from any number of backgrounds and as involved with each other to the degree that they choose – it’s such a classic setup, no wonder Marsh mined it again and again.

    It’s like the classical “murder in a boarding house” where, again, you can have any number of people who could come from any number of backgrounds and be there for any number of reasons (something Hans Olav Lahlum exploited superbly in The Human Flies, helping with the classical feel of that book). They’re two sub-classifications I become more and more aware of as I’m motivated to think more deeply about crime fiction since I started blogging (gotta have something interesting to day, after all). Who knows, maybe I’ll be able to turn it into a post one day…

    What I’ve been mulling lately, though, is that for two such classic setups it’s interesting that Agatha Christie never ventured into them. Lord Edgware Dies has the theatre as background but doesn’t use it in the same way, and the closest she came to the second was Murder in Mesopotamia. Arguably she was more of a “murder on holiday” writer (Evil Under the Sun, Death on the Nile, Appointment with Death, even arguably Murder on the Orient Express).

    I’m not sure what my point is, and I appreciate it doesn’t really contibute to the discussion of this book, but I thought I’d share all the same!

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    • You raise an interesting idea on the type of setups Marsh and Christie use. I think instead of the murder in a boarding house mystery, Christie preferred to use the private house, holiday transportation and holiday accommodation. However, Hickory Dickory Dock is set in a student hostel which is similar to boarding house. I think Brad is correct though when he mentions in his comment that Christie uses the theatre in a figurative way in her work as opposed to the literal use Marsh employs it for. If you are interested in another boarding house murder there is Mavis Doriel Hay’s Murder Underground.


  2. Good review, Kate, highlighting the, er, highlights and lowlights of a typical Marsh mystery. I always like her beginnings and then Alleyn, nice as he is, mucks it up with all that routine investigation. Plus, Marsh seemed usually averse to the twist or surprise ending!

    Marsh ran a theatre in New Zealand and Christie, of course, was a very successful playwright, so they both loved the theatre. I always think that some of Christie’s best mysteries are about a murderer “staging” a scene to appear different than it is. So there IS an acting element in They Do It With Murder, and of course you mustn’t forget Three Act Tragedy. Neither takes place IN a theater, but the murder scenes both have overtly theatrical elements. (In the former, two victims ARE found in a theater.) There’s a theatrical element in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead that’s quite strong. Having just blogged on The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, I think the most disappointing thing is the clear fact that Christie didn’t seem to know a lot about filmmaking or film actors, yet Marina Gregg IS a fully realized character, perhaps the only one in that novel, and one of Christie’s strongest actor characters!

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    • The “staging” element is a very interesting one, Brad, and something so classically Golden Age that I’d clearly taken it for granted. Perhaps there’s a notion of “implicit theatre” in most GA books…hmmm, this is something I’m going to go away and think about…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps JJ might blog on theatre and the Golden Age mystery novel? 🙂 I suppose the notion of theatre, in both literal and figurative terms, sits well with the genre of the mystery novel, given the strong connection between theatre and different characters playing different roles, manipulating appearances, and managing onlookers’ expectations.

        Veering further and further away from Ngaio Marsh, it seems to me that Edmund Cripsin enjoyed interweaving theatre into his mystery writing: ‘Gilded Fly’ played on both the literal and figurative notions of theatre; in ‘Love Lies Bleeding’, Gervase Fen relied on the help of the drama (?) tutor who exercised ‘a subtle command of histrionics’.

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        • I hadn’t really thought of Crispin’s use of theatre before. I wonder how the theatre has been continued in detective fiction post the Golden Age. There are certainly novels which use it as its setting such as Simon Brett’s books, but I wonder how it is used in its figurative sense. Theatre seems to be a powerful metaphor in literature not just in crime fiction, as even books like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair suggests in its preface that all the characters are like puppets under the control of the puppeteer, the writer and treats the reader like an audience to a play.


  3. Peregrine and Emily also appear as a married couple in a later book, ‘Light Thickens’, set around the staging of Macbeth. I agree, ‘Death at the Dolphin’ is not the best of Marsh’s theatrical novels; I never did find the motivations here very convincing. ‘Opening Night’ is much better.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I recently read this one too – felt very much as you did. I enjoyed the setting very much, found some aspects completely unconvincing, and hated the ending/solution – it seemed out of character. But I remember it fondly because of the picture of London and the theatre.
    Am intrigued by this news that the happy couple feature again.

    Liked by 1 person

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