The Nursing Home Murder (Inspector Alleyn 3) by Ngaio Marsh

His life in their hands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan, is in the middle of steering an important bill through Parliament to counter the threat from anarchists and Bolshevists. So although he is suffering from intermittent abdominal pains, he is ignoring them until he has more time to deal with personal issues. And the personal issues are piling up! As well as his health and threats against his life from those Bolshies, his doctor, Sir John Phillips, is furious at the way he has treated a nurse who works in Sir John’s clinic, having seduced and then dumped her. It’s probable his wife won’t be too happy if she learns about that little episode either! His sister, meantime, thinks that all his woes and ills can be cured by one of the many patent medicines she acquires from her pharmacist friend. It all comes to a crisis when Sir Derek collapses while giving a speech in the House of Commons. He is rushed to Sir John’s clinic where he is diagnosed with peritonitis requiring immediate surgery. Hmm… surgery carried out by the doctor who’s furious at him, the nurse he seduced, an anaesthetist who previously accidentally killed a patient, and another nurse who is a Bolshevist in her spare time. So when he subsequently dies, it’s not altogether surprising that suspicions of murder arise! Enter Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the Yard…

It’s a long time since I last read a Ngaio Marsh, but I was very fond of her books back in the day, and happily this was a pleasant revisit. It’s a nice mix of whodunit and howdunit, and the investigation is mostly carried out through a series of interviews Alleyn has with the various suspects. It soon transpires that Sir Derek had been poisoned with hyoscine, a drug that had been used as part of his preparation for surgery. So suspicion naturally falls on Sir John, since he gave the hyoscine injection. But Alleyn quickly realises that many other people had the opportunity to give him another injection or perhaps to have given him the drug in another form. So it all comes down to motive and method – who wanted him dead (lots of people!) and who could have given him the drug, and how.

The one thing that makes me not wholeheartedly love Marsh as much as I do, for example, Christie, is the snobbishness in the books – a fault she of course shares with many of the Golden Age writers. Alleyn is one of these aristocratic policeman (did they ever exist in real life, I wonder?) and his sidekick, Inspector Fox, is a “common man”. Alleyn is very fond of Fox but is horribly patronising towards him, as is Marsh herself. When thinking about it, I wonder if part of the reason that Christie has remained so popular is that Poirot’s sidekick is a man of the same or even higher class than Poirot himself, so that while Poirot may mock his intelligence from time to time there’s no feeling of snobbery. Alleyn’s Fox, Sayers’ portrayal of Wimsey’s sidekick, Bunter, and Allingham’s Lugg, sidekick for Campion, all make the books feel much more dated than Christie and in a way of which modern audiences are less tolerant, I feel. Although I do often wonder what contemporary working class readers, who surely made up the bulk of the readership for all these authors, made of their mockery of the working classes. We were more deferential, for sure, back then, but even so. Anyway, I digress.

Challenge details:
Book: 55
Subject Heading: Playing Politics
Publication Year: 1935

Alleyn also has another occasional sidekick in the person of a young journalist, Nigel Bathgate, and he and his fiancée, Angela, appear in this one. Alleyn sends them off to infiltrate an anarchist meeting, and has fun with the portrayal of these bogeymen of the era, complete with stock bearded Russian Bolshevist. Nigel and Angela are Bright Young Things, and provide some levity which lightens the tone. Alleyn himself is quite a cheerful detective, who enjoys his job and has a keen sense of justice. So while the books aren’t quite cosy, nor are they dark and grim.

Ngaio Marsh

The eventual solution veers over the credibility line but the general tone of the book means this doesn’t matter as much as it would in a darker style of novel. I was rather proud of the fact that I spotted one or two clues, but I was still surprised when all was revealed.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Philip Franks, and he did a very good job, getting into the spirit of the more caricatured characters (the Bolshevists, for instance) while making both Alleyn and Fox likeable, as they are on the page.

Overall, an enjoyable reunion with some old friends, and I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the other books. This is an early one, and I may try a late one next, to see if the snobbery gets toned down as time passes.

Audible UK Link

24 thoughts on “The Nursing Home Murder (Inspector Alleyn 3) by Ngaio Marsh

  1. I enjoyed this on too FF, though I agree about the snobbery. I’ve only read one Campion with Lugg in it, and thought the utter contempt he showed towards Campion was quite refreshing 😀 But from what you say this doesn’t continue…

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    • I haven’t read much Allingham, mainly because I don’t like Campion, so I can’t say really, but the few I’ve read have had Lugg as a sort of comedy character that Campion “affectionately” mocks. I’d have liked it much better if he’d shown some contempt – maybe I should try to find one of those books! I must say the very fact that he’s called Magersfontein Lugg makes me grind my teeth… 😉

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  2. I’ve read a few Alleyn books though not this one, and did more or less enjoy them though I will agree about the attitude. Though like Madame BB the only Allingham I’ve so far read did I think have Lugg being contemptuous though in the ultimate the idea is that Campion quickly take over the title so Lugg can be a socially better placed minion 🙂

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    • That’s interesting about the Campion books. I haven’t read many of them because I don’t enjoy them much, but maybe I’ve been reading the wrong ones! Usually I find Campion is “affectionately” mocking Lugg, and I can’t see why Lugg would put up with it. Maybe I’ll try some more. With the Alleyn ones it doesn’t annoy me quite so much because Alleyn clearly respects Fox even though he patronises him.

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  3. You know, you have a very well-taken point, FictionFan, about the classism in Marsh’s work. I hadn’t thought about that before, but it makes a lot of sense. Perhaps Christie just had a different view of working class people? There’s some classism in her work, but I agree completely that you don’t see it in the relationship between Poirot and Hastings. Hmmm…that’s something to think about, and I appreciate it! Glad you enjoyed the novel, too,

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    • Yes, Christie’s working class characters can be stereotyped, but she’s one of the few who seems to feel the death of the maid deserves justice as much as the death of the mistress, so to speak. Plus Hastings is certainly Poirot’s social equal even if he’s not in the same class intellectually. I may be extrapolating from my own prejudices, but I do feel the books with a working class sidekick feel more dated, and a bit uncomfortable or annoying to read. But with the Alleyn books, it’s a minor annoyance – you can tell Alleyn respects Fox even if he treats him like a beloved pet!

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  4. Great review! I enjoyed the Ngaio Marsh novels and the mystery series adaptations. But I see what you mean about the attitudes of the day. I also am fonder of Christie than of Marsh. For some reason the Campion books bothered me more than the Marsh novels.

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    • I agree – the Campion books are much worse in terms of snobbery, and that’s a lot of the reason that I really don’t enjoy them much. With Alleyn it’s a minor annoyance – you can tell he likes and respects Fox even if he treats him a bit like a beloved pet! I do enjoy her plots though, and must read more of them. I don’t think I read them all back in the day…

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  5. The plot sounds rather fun. Who doesn’t want to enter into a medical procedure surrounded by folks who want them dead!!. 😂 I’d just have to read it for myself to see how much the classism bothered me. It was clearly a fact of life (much like some attitudes here) and sometimes I can just let it slide. (while shaking my head)

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    • Haha, yes, his last words before going under anaesthetic were “No, don’t let…” Aargh! Too late! 😉 It bother me in some books more than other. I find Sayers and Allingham so snobby I really don’t enjoy them much, but with the Alleyn books it’s just a minor irritation. I like Alleyn and her plots are usually very good. I suspect you’d like them, and I’m looking forward to listening to more of them myself.

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  6. I haven’t read this one, but it sounds interesting. I’m glad you pointed out the snobbishness, though, because I can see where that would be a turn-off. While I won’t be knocking people over to get my hands on a copy, I’ll keep an eye out for one.

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    • It’s an occupational hazard with British Golden Age authors, that kind of class snobbery. But Marsh isn’t as bad as some of them – I find it irritating rather than off-putting. I’ll hopefully be listening to more of them, so I may be able to tempt you with another! 😀

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  7. I’ve been wanting to try a Ngaio Marsh novel and I think this might be a good place to start, because the medical setting would keep me interested. Going through Christie’s work in order I’ve noticed that it becomes increasingly snobbish after the introduction of the welfare state, having previously been quite egalitarian, which is interesting. And I totally agree about Lugg (have not yet made it through a novel by Margery Allingham) but not at all about Bunter! Maybe I’m just blind to it there because I love Sayers so much, but I think Bunter and Peter have a wonderful friendship.

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    • Apparently she wrote this one with the help of a doctor friend – her gynaecologist! – so I assume the medical stuff is probably quite accurate for the time, although of course it all happens in a private nursing home for the rich rather than in an ordinary hospital. That’s interesting about Christie. I’ve always read her books randomly, so have never really seen progressions in her style. But I’m aware of snobbery in some of them. I think the major difference is that with her it tends to be secondary characters who are the working class ones, whereas with the others it’s the ‘tec’s sidekick, and I find that makes it harder to tolerate. I always want the sidekick to either punch them, or at the very least to resign and get a job with someone who doesn’t treat them like a favoured pet! Thank goodness Poirot only ribs Hastings about his lack of little grey cells, and doesn’t mock his accent or manners…!!

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  8. Hmm that’s too bad that Marsh is so snobby. You’re right that back then it wouldn’t really register, but reading it in 2022 it no doubt grates, I would find that annoying as well. I really want to try reading one of her books though, now my interest is piqued!

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    • It’s a recurring issue with lots of the Golden Age British authors, but Marsh isn’t as snobby as some of them, so I can tolerate her better. And her plots are usually good fun! She’s well worth trying if you find time at some point… 😀

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