Overture to Death (1939) by Ngaio Marsh

Today’s review is a re-read, as will be my next one. By and large most of what I review/read is new reads so it is nice to do some revisiting as well, (she says trying to justify having to get another book case).

The setting for this tale is one which many vintage mystery fans will be familiar with: the small country village, with all of its inhabitants far too involved in each other’s lives. In particular there are two spinsters in the parish, Eleanor Prentice and Idris Campanula, who cover their love of digging up and spreading scandal, with false moral rectitude. It is even worse for Henry Jernigham who is the cousin of the one of these women and unfortunately for him his cousin strongly disapproves of his intentions to marry the rector’s daughter and much mischief making ensues. All of these tensions and underlying jealousies come to a head when plans are made to raise funds for a new piano for the village hall by putting on a theatrical performance. Such plans even intensify the jealousy and rivalry between Idris and Eleanor, who both want to play the music for the performance, as well as wanting to obtain the affections of the much put upon rector. After much jostling Eleanor claims the prize of playing the music, but an injured finger means this is a short lived victory when Idris has to step in. Idris’ victory is also short lived, but much more violently ended when during her performance she is shot. On the same night a big burglary has also taken place, so the local constabulary call in Scotland Yard, which of course means the arrival of Inspector Alleyn.

Overall Thoughts

Whilst it is very easy to criticise Marsh’s work, I’ll be good and begin with the positives first. The first 100 pages are wonderfully written with the closed village setting with its inner rivalries and tensions coming to a head in amateur theatrical, being brought fully to life. Given Marsh’s theatrical background it is not surprising that she recreates this milieu well. The suspects are mostly well drawn and it is hard to not feel sorry for the poor, but comical rector. The only downside of being in this cast of characters is if you are a middle aged spinster, as with some of her other novels, this character type is never shown to be nice or even fully normal. This narrative choice is interesting given that so many of her contemporaries were trying to write an alternative narrative for spinster characters. In addition, although Marsh never reached the dizzy heights of complexity that John Dickson Carr did when devising murder methods, the method in this book is out of the ordinary and sinisterly genteel.

So having written a whole paragraph of positives I can now comment on the remainder of the book, all 235 pages of it. It’s odd how Marsh is good at characterisation when it comes to her suspects and extras, but invariably falls flat when trying to create an enjoyable police detective. Inspector Alleyn has never been a personal favourite with me; a combination of boring and mildly irritating. However in fairness to Marsh the investigation element of the story wasn’t as painfully dull as it can be is. I think this was aided by her interspersing scenes with Alleyn, with vignettes involving the suspects. The pacing works well for the first half, but due to unnecessary padding, the pace becomes rather slow in the second half, with information perhaps being repeated a little too much; after all Alleyn’s letter to Troy is completely pointless, adding nothing to the tale. A much tighter plot would have radically improved this book in my opinion. So taking all things into consideration I would say this is another middle of the road Marsh novel.

Rating: 3.75/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Musical Instrument


    • Scales of Justice is her best one in terms of the puzzle and investigation in my opinion. Though I also loved Surfeit of Lampreys for its characterisation and comedy. However this latter book is very decisive as people seem to either love it or hate it.

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      • I read Scales of Justice earlier this year and thought it was quite good, and this is from someone who has had more than a few disappointments with Marsh.
        She’s an odd kind of author, in my opinion; it’s not a case of a writer I’ve come to realize I simply can’t abide (Sayers springs to mind here) and whose books I actively avoid, but I never approach her work with any real enthusiasm or anticipation.

        Liked by 1 person

          • The style just doesn’t work for me at all. I mentioned elsewhere the other day how The Nine Tailors told me I’d had enough – it seems to be regarded as one of her very best and I was simply bored to tears, so…


  1. I liked this one more than you did — it’s my favourite of hers, I think, and I have found quite a bit of fault with other of her novels in the past. I agree that Marsh had some kind of THING about middle-aged spinsters (and gay men) and can’t seem to portray them sympathetically. But I think the critical clue here is concealed deftly and in plain sight, the story hook is interesting, I can actually stand to read about the young lovers in the throes of first love, there’s humour, and for once I believed in the people and their motivations. And the book doesn’t to me seem to fall prey to Marsh’s most common problem, a dreary Act II with chapter after chapter of interviews unleavened by anything interesting. There’s still a lot of interviews but somehow they work here for me. I think partly the book works because the action is constrained to a small stage and a limited number of characters, and doesn’t strain Marsh’s talents to keep things on track. The story of Alleyn and Troy, well, I can usually skip over those bits. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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