Source: Review Copy (GreyLadies)
Quite an unusual book for review today as Death Goes Dancing (2014) was written in the 1950s but was never published at the time because the publisher it went to stopped publishing fiction. Allan (1915-1998) seems to have been a versatile author writing mostly children stories but she also branched into adult fiction as well. Many of her works had female or educational focuses and she also often included references to folk music and customs, as folk dancing was something she enjoyed doing and teaching. The introduction to the book is by the author herself from a piece she wrote in 1985 called ‘Wasted Words – Or Good Experience,’ which looks at the quite considerable amount of work she wrote which never got published or got published later but only once she reinvented it or changed it a lot.
The story begins with DI Ewen Gilbride and his wife, Frances a violinist, going to see a ballet performance in the London theatre Darielle. The performance in question is Mediterranean Madness, written by Sebastain Knight, featuring the ballerina Leonina Moon. The ballet company also includes Sarne Saxilby, who is the prima ballerina, though there are rumours she will be retiring soon, which would allow Moon to take her place. Knight used to be married to Saxilby, yet she divorced him for infidelity, which still rankles with him and he prefers to exclude her from the ballets he choreographs, though some say he still loves her.
Even from the very beginning of the performance, Gilbride thinks something is wrong with both Moon and her partner (on and off the stage) Dale Valentyn showing strain. In the interval Gilbride’s hunch is confirmed when Lucien Darielle whose ballet company and theatre it is, asks for his assistance. Saxilby has been found in her dressing room murdered, stabbed in the back. Despite Saxilby not always being easy to work with, the suspects Gilbride interviews are at a loss as to motive, though Gilbride soon comes up with a few. Firstly there is Saxilby’s teenage daughter Bronwen, who had a poor relationship with her cold and distant mother and who yearned for a career working with animals, but instead was forced to train for ballet. Bronwen had arranged to meet her mother in her dressing room that night. Did an argument get out of hand? Or perhaps, Bronwen’s father Knight did the deed for his daughter’s sake? Though with Knight there are other motives to consider too as Saxilby kept her cast off lovers around her, allowing them to hope they may get another chance. Did Knight murder her out of jealousy? Or did one of these rejected lovers have enough? Gilbride also looks within the ballet company itself, much to Darielle’s chagrin. Why did Moon and Valentyn look so anxious? Did Moon’s ambition get the better of her? Things certainly look bleak for Valentyn when it turns out the murder weapon belonged to him.
Although there are many big personalities within the group of suspects, they are unable to or unwilling to shed much light on the murder. But such reluctance to help the police can have fatal consequences… In between performances Gilbride keeps on interviewing the suspects, adding to the tension and strain within the company, with some characters certainly looking like they will soon crack. In keeping with the theatre and ballet milieu the finale of this story is a dramatic one and the conclusion of this case leaves the usually calm Gilbride unsettled.
Thoughts on Saxilby
Due to being the primary murder victim a lot of attention unsurprisingly is given to Saxilby and in particular her personality comes under a lot of examination, with Gilbride hypothesizing that her childhood experiences affected her ability to maintain relationships. I think Gilbride’s more nuanced examination of her character means that Saxilby goes beyond being a stereotypical woman who draws men in and then discards them, which more maintained by those within the ballet troupe:
‘Sarne was – well, a fascinating woman, and men adored her, but there was something – not very warm about her… I always thought she didn’t really like men. She liked to have them about her occasionally, and I supposed she got a kick out of making conquests, but she didn’t really enjoy any sort of intimacy… I never felt I knew her real self.’
In a way there is a feeling that in terms of Saxilby and who she was, there is a story within this novel never completely told and Saxilby in some way stays something of a mystery.
Thoughts on Gilbride
I don’t think Gilbride makes a good first impression as he does come across as a bit full of himself and very confident in his own abilities, though trying to act nonchalant about his knowledge of ballet, folk music and his linguistic skills. Moreover, the narrative itself gives him an unnecessary ego boost:
‘It was sometimes said by harder spirits at the Yard that Ewen Gilbride had too much imagination, but it was that very imagination that had often made his cases end brilliantly.’
However, this self-importance does decrease significantly as the novel progresses, so it isn’t much of an issue.
On the whole I enjoyed this book as Allan capture the theatre and ballet milieu well and in terms of style this novel definitely has a Golden Age detective fiction feel to it. Moreover, the milieu and the demeanour of Gilbride did remind me of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn. The motive for the original murder was inventive and not run of the mill, which I liked. The characters are also well drawn and due to many of the suspects being artistes there is also a question of whether they expressing genuine or fake emotions. Moreover, I liked how Allan gave the ballet troupe members a variety of backgrounds. I think puzzle focused readers may prefer more overt clues, though this is not a clueless crime and there was an important clue I missed early on, which is significant in the final solution and the solution itself was a surprise as Allan deftly keeps her reader’s focus elsewhere. Something which intrigued me in the novel was the binary opposition set up in this novel between foreign passionate-ness and British solidity, as in Gilbride’s eyes men who are passionate are identified as “other,” foreign or non-British. This is exemplified when Gilbride considers Valentyn:
‘He looked on first acquaintance, a man of integrity, but he also looked a man of strong passions. Perhaps not entirely English. Ewen made a mental note to look up Dale Valentyn’s history as soon as he could. He had a feeling that he had had a Hungarian father and had come to England as a child. Foreigners were not always necessarily more passionate than Englishman but he was obviously deeply in love with Leonina Moon.’
I didn’t find the sentiments in this passage a novelty, in fact the opposite, as this stereotyped view of European men is quite common in a lot of Golden Age detective novels. So I think it is the popularity of this assumption which intrigues me and I wonder if it still persists today in fiction. Thoughts any one?
All in all I certainly enjoyed reading this book and fans of theatrical mysteries will especially like this story in my opinion.