NGAIO MARSH – Enter a Murderer. Inspector Roderick Alleyn #2. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1935. Pocket Books #113, US, paperback, 1941. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and paperback.

   The second Roderick Alleyn detective novel, and the first of many subsequent Ngaio Marsh mysteries to take place in the world of the London theatre. I don’t know the history of such things, so I’m only suggesting this, but could this be the first detective novel in which the victim is killed on stage in front of a live audience by a gun which is supposed to have fake bullets — but doesn’t?

   If not, it has to be one of the first. And in the audience is none other than Inspector Alleyn himself, along with his friend Nigel Bathgate, a journalist whom he met in the first book in the series, A Man Lay Dead (1934). Bathgate has not only provided the tickets, but he stays close to Alleyn throughout the book as an unofficial Watson — until, that is, his friendship with the suspects makes him something of a liability, from Alleyn’s point of view.

   And there are a lot of suspects, and where each of them were when there was an opportunity to switch the bullets is obviously a prime factor in the investigation that follows.

   This early in Alleyn’s career, I don’t believe that Marsh had a very good handle on his character yet. I grant you that in large part we see him through Bathgate’s eyes, but the latter often seems genuinely surprised by some of Alleyn’s reactions to events, both major and minor, as they happen throughout the investigation. And in all honesty I was taken aback myself, just a bit, at a scene in which it seems he has fallen unduly under the spell of the play’s leading lady — and she still a suspect.

   And here’s a curiosity. On page 86 of the Berkley paperback reprint I happened to I read this time, after Alleyn has questioned most of the people on and behind the stage when the shooting took place, he asks one of them to wait a little longer in the wardrobe room. Nothing is heard of the latter from that point on until the inquest takes place several days later, and then never again.

   All in all, in spite of the lapse above, Enter a Murderer remains highly readable, but it’s also nowhere nearly as sharp or knock-your-socks-off clever at the game of fair play detection as Agatha Christie was, back in the mid-30s when the book was written. Of course, no one else was either, then or now.