NGAIO MARSH – Vintage Murder. Inspector Roderick Alleyn #4. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1937. Sheridan House, US, hardcover, 1940. Bestseller Mystery #B68, digest-sized paperback, abridged, circa 1945. Berkley #665, paperback, 1962. Reprinted many times since.

   In this only his fourth recorded case, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alleyn is well enough known that the police force in a small town in New Zealand are familiar with both his investigative expertise and technique. When a death in a theatre occurs, a very suspicious one, the local force is more than willing to have Alleyn take a hand.

   As it so happens, Alleyn is on a solo vacation when the death happened, and since he had met the various members of the repertoire company on the train the day before, he is also on the spot when a bottle of champagne comes falling down, killing the co-manager of the company, a pudgy man who was also the husband of the leading lady, whose birthday celebration it was.

   Vintage in terms of wine, you see, not vintage in terms of paperbacks, say.

   The questioning of all the players and crew takes all night and into the morning, with Alleyn lending an ear, and it makes for rather dull reading, there’s no getting around it. The alibis that are offered, however, serve to suggest that it would have been very difficult for any of them to have rigged the ropes and pulleys to cause the bottle to come crashing down when it did. Not only that, but someone was responsible afterward to put everything back in place — but who?

   The first few chapters take place on the train into Middleton, and mysteries that take place on trains are always fun to read, but the best scenes come after the overnight questioning of all the suspects, at which point Alleyn is given a free hand to do some investigating on his own. Best is the scene in which he does a most unorthodox questioning of the troupe’s leading lady. He knows she is lying, but since he also believes her to be innocent, he thinks he knows why.

   Just before the ending, there is also one giant red herring laid by Alleyn himself, to lull the killer into a sense of false security, perhaps, which serves to wrap a finely written detective novel — one not quite as cleverly plotted as one of Agatha Christie’s, but one with just a little bit more literary skill.

   And, oh. One last thing. Ngaio Marsh loved the theatre, there’s no doubt about it. The ins and outs of production, the building itself, from top to bottom (in essence, they’re always the same), and the people in it. Definitely the people in it.