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Book Review: The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh


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.

Book Review: Hush Now, Don’t You Cry

hushnowdon'tyoucryFull disclosure: I only read about a third of this so this is really more my impressions than any full, impressive book review. Rhys Bowen is an award-winning mystery writer with dozens of books, and this is the 11th in her Molly Murphy series – and also my introduction to her writing.

But look – this just wasn’t very good. Molly, an Irish private detective in a world in which lady detectives are an anomaly, has just married a New York City senior detective and the two are off on their honeymoon to an acquaintance’s estate on Rhode Island. Shortly after arriving, their host turns up dead, and the two are naturally pulled into the mystery of solving his murder.

Molly (just so you know, the book is written in the first-person) is an endearing protagonist, as is her husband Daniel – both brave, fairly clever, possessed of senses of humor. But the good characterization is buried in overly long prose and a trite mystery setup. If you’re read even one or two gothic novels, much less a great many murder mysteries, you will start to check out the moment Molly arrives at an old mansion and sees the ghostly head of a mysterious child in a window – a child who was killed years before. From there, it only gets worse – a houseful of wealthy relatives any one of whom could have wanted the victim dead and who are sketched with the barest of details and personality, a suspicious housekeeper who pops out of mysterious corridors, a decanter of whisky conveniently left in a secluded spot…

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