NGAIO MARSH – Night at the Vulcan. Little Brown, US, hardcover, 1951. First published in the UK as Opening Night (Collins, 1951). Reprinted many times in both hardcover and paperback.

   It wasn’t until I’d finished this book and had done some research on it that I discovered that it was the sequel to the short story “I Can Find My Way Out” (EQMM, August 1946) in which a murder was committed in the same theater in a very similar fashion, with several of the same characters investigating, including Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. One difference, however, is that in the earlier story the theater is called the Jupiter. In the novel, it is the Vulcan, as the American title has it, the building having been modernized in the meantime.

   Marsh’s love for the theater comes through loud and clear in this book. (Nor of course is it the only one of her detective stories to take place with a theatrical setting.) Alleyn does not even make an appearance until page 147 of the paperback edition I read. Before that there is a long and wholly engrossing prelude to the tale as we follow the plight of a young girl and would-be actress from New Zealand looking for a job in London with barely a shilling to her name.

   It’s a rag to riches story for her, beginning with being chosen by chance to be a dresser for the female star of a new play about to open, then to understudy to a female player who’s in the role only by her uncle’s insistence, and finally to playing the role herself on opening night. Overwhelming in the sudden change in fortune for her, yes, but the ride is also very exhilarating.

   It’s too bad, then that she doesn’t get to enjoy it. Dead (suicide?) is the uncle, a tosspot no longer able to hold his own, and cuckolded husband of the female star Martyn Tarne was hired to be dresser for. The backstage drama that precedes this very momentous opening night, thus upstaged by the murder, is actually the stronger portion of the novel. The killer — it is not suicide — is obvious, but the motive is not, nor is it (regrettably) one that the reader has a way of knowing until Alleyn explains all at the end

   Net result: quite enjoyable, but with a small caveat regarding the detective end of things.