The Nursing Home Murder, Ngaio Marsh
When Britain’s Home Secretary Derek 0’Callaghan dies shortly after an emergency appendicitis operation, no-one at first suspects foul play. But his wife is convinced someone killed him, and the autopsy shows poisonous levels of hyoscine, a drug used during the operation. Chief Inspector Alleyn is called in, and finds that very nearly everyone in the room had a reason to kill 0’Callaghan: the nurse was his ex-lover, the surgeon was in love with the nurse and furious at O’Callaghan for breaking her heart, and the secondary nurse is a Bolshevik sympathizer who believed 0’Callaghan was ruining the country.
This is Ngaio Marsh’s third book in the Alleyn series, and it’s not very good: it’s neither a good Marsh novel nor a good mystery in general. The plot is relatively complex; multiple suspects, all with opportunity and good motives, and about a dozen red herrings appear, in particular the victim’s sister as a suspect. It’s also difficult to keep track of the exact order of events during the operation; 0’Callaghan receives three separate injections, all administered by different people – all suspects – and none of this part becomes clear until Alleyn stages a reconstruction of the operation toward the end of the novel. Had Marsh placed this reconstruction toward the beginning, the actual events, and the stakes at play, would have been much clearer and the reader would have been given more reason to be invested. As it is, it is not infrequently confusing, and this isn’t helped by the majority of the suspects being rather stupid, uninteresting people, drawn by Marsh with one-note characterizations. Sir Robert Phillips, the surgeon and an old friend of the Secretary’s, is the only interesting one, and even his purpose in life is reduced to a blind infatuation with one of the nurses.
All in all, this is perhaps the weakest Marsh I’ve read so far. The characteristics that would make her later books so satisfying – her incisive character sketching, the warmth and humor of Inspector Alleyn, her ability to turn a plot on a small, overlooked detail – are only faintly present – the stirrings of a great writer trying to break through inexperience. Her later Alleyn novels show an incredibly developed confidence and prowess for plot; this is competent but dull.