I’m very fond of Ngaio Marsh’s detective novels featuring Roderick Alleyn: the earliest date from the 1930s (A Man Lay Dead is the first), and although she wrote a lot of these mysteries she was never as prolific as, say, Agatha Christie (whose writing career started and ended a little earlier). Marsh was also involved in the theatre, and her knowledge and love for that medium shows in many of her detective novels with a theatrical setting, such as Death at The Dolphin or Opening Night.
False Scent is set amongst theatre folk, though the action primarily takes place (rather theatrically) in the house of Mary Bellamy, a famous and talented actress who specialises in comedic roles. As she is getting older, Miss Bellamy is getting more and more temperamental and prone to tantrums. Her ward, Richard Dakers, has had success with a couple of comedies with Mary in the lead role, but he has recently written a drama for which there is no role for her: instead he envisages a much younger actress, Anelida Lee, in the main part. He, rather foolishly, leaves the manuscript for Miss Bellamy to read on her birthday. Later in the day, Kate ‘Pinky’ Cavendish – also an actress, used to playing second fiddle to Miss Bellamy – visits with her gift for Mary – a flask of very opulent perfume – and full of pleasure, which she can’t contain, that ‘The Management’ are hiring her to star in a play which will not include Miss Bellamy. This revelation, together with Pinky’s confession that Bertie Saracen, who has previously designed all of Mary’s costumes, will do Pinky’s. Mary gives way to an alarming fit of rage, which upsets everyone in the house, and which simmers down eventually, but does not cool.
Later, at the party, Timon ‘Timmy’ Gantry, a well-regarded director, speaks to Anelida and recommends her for Richard’s new drama; Mary overhears, and another tantrum is thrown – though Marsh doesn’t reveal what is said. It is unsurprising, therefore, that not long afterwards, Mary is found dead, poisoned with the insecticide she had been using on her azaleas.
At first it is thought to be an accident, and the police are called in as a matter of course, before Inspector Fox realises that it could only have been murder, and his chief, Alleyn, arrives to solve the mystery.
One of the things I like about many of Marsh’s Alleyn mysteries is how quickly she has everything solved: the action of this book takes just about two days. She is interested in character, too: the people inhabiting her novels are usually well-drawn and interesting, and most of them change and develop over the course of the novel. She usually plays fair with the reader, too, dropping clues and red herrings alike, but Alleyn is there to carefully unravel the obfuscation and lies told by the guilty and the innocent.
The twists and turns in the plot, suggesting guilt of first one character, and then the next, are well done, resulting from the way the information has been revealed, rather than for its own sake. Alleyn is perhaps a little over-intuitive at times, though his voice is authoritative enough that the reader tends not to notice. Her characters are usually all real people with their own foibles and share of weakness: for example, Mary’s thoughts at the beginning of the book could be setting up a rather lovable character, but the more one sees of her the more one realises that she is a mask covering a more unpleasant person. Both Richard and Anelida are a little naive, though Anelida with more excuse, since she’s not even twenty, whereas Richard is in his later twenties.
I wouldn’t recommend this book as somewhere to start if you’re new to Marsh, though it’s a competent enough detective novel with entertaining and quirky characters: the title rather gives the plot away, and the murderer’s motive seems rather thin. These are fairly minor criticisms, however.