The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh: B+

From the back cover:
Sir John Phillips, the Harley Street surgeon, and his beautiful nurse, Jane Harden, are almost too nervous to operate. The emergency case on the table before them is the Home Secretary—and they both have very good, personal reasons to wish him dead. Within hours he does die, although the operation was a complete success…

Wow, a Ngaio Marsh book I actually enjoyed! I think the difference is that we’re not seeing events (and Inspector Alleyn) through the eyes of another character this time. Alleyn seems almost like a different character now. He’s still breezy and flip, but seems to be more consistent in mood and personality. Characterization is not the focus of this novel, but this is still a definite improvement.

The structure of the book was very tidy. The first third is devoted to setting up the victim in life, and those with possible motivations against him. The next third consists of Alleyn’s interviews with all the surgeons and nurses present during the procedure. James Saxon, the audiobook’s narrator, does a fabulous job giving each of these people their own voice, both literally and figuratively. I especially love how he handles a blustery doctor prone to going “ha ha ha” at his own comments.

The rest of the book continues and completes the investigation. The only things I didn’t particularly like were the first appearance by a couple of Alleyn’s civilian buddies (they got on my nerves and disrupted the flow of things) and the pantomime reconstruction of the surgical procedure in question (lo, how it dragged).

A final note: apparently a nursing home is something else in the UK. This is not about a place where elderly folks dwell, but rather a small hospital where surgeries are performed. It took a while for me to get the image of the victim as an old dude out of my head.

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh: C-

From the back cover:
The crime was committed on stage at the Unicorn Theatre, when an unloaded gun fired a very real bullet. The victim was Arthur Surbanadier, an actor clawing his way to stardom using blackmail victims. The stage was set for one of Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn’s most baffling cases…

I think I need a new rating for laughably bad. I simply must quote the bit that literally made me crack up. It doesn’t reveal the identities of the speakers, but you should stop reading now if you’re concerned about spoilers.

She took a step towards him, looked into his eyes, and smiled. In a moment he had her close-held in his arms. “What’s this?” he said roughly. “I know you’re everything I most deplore—and yet—look at this. Shall I kiss you?”
“Why not?”
“Every reason why not.”
“How strangely you look at me. As if you were examining my face inch by inch.”
He released her suddenly. “Please go,” he said.

Bwahaha. It still amuses me.

The mystery itself is neither particularly bad nor particularly good. I could’ve done with less of Nigel Bathgate’s angst about an old acquaintance’s involvement and his propensity to interrupt and/or overhear suspicious conversations. After a time, it seems no new evidence is gathered and it’s just a lot of histrionics. The conclusion is a little unsatisfying, as well, and I wonder if an aspect of the solution really agrees with what had been established early on, but I don’t care enough to go back and verify.

The main flaw is unchanged from the first book to feature Inspector Alleyn—I just can’t get a handle on his personality. Is he truly breezy, flip, uncaring, rather unprofessional, and capricious? At times, his actions bely these impressions and I just have no idea which is right. Is he supposed to be a mysterious and unpredictable person, or is this just bad writing?

The question of whether to continue the series might appear to be a no-brainer, except that I keep reading that the later stories are an improvement. The library has all but two (many unabridged and narrated by James Saxon, who was excellent here despite the material, and whose voice reminds me of Vivian Stanshall), so I suppose I might as well. Besides, it’s kind of fun to award a lousy grade every now and then.

A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh: B

From the back cover:
When Sir Hubert Handesley invited his well-to-do friends to his country estate for an amusing weekend, no one suspected it would turn into a deadly ordeal. But one of the participants in the supposedly playful Murder Game turns up dead… and Scotland Yard’s inimitable Roderick Alleyn must find out who spoiled the fun.

I’ve seen Ngaio Marsh compared to Agatha Christie a few times, but the writing is much more like Conan Doyle, complete with the occasional disdainful remark about or depiction of foreigners or poor people. Alleyn’s methods of detection are rather Holmesian, and the subplot would not be out of place in a tale of Sherlock’s exploits.

The mystery is decent, and the method of the crime quite unusual. In addition, Alleyn makes some choices that I’ve not seen a detective make before, as they’re very non-standard procedure for the Yard. While the in-character basis for these is suspect, they do at least succeed in keeping a) things lively and b) the closest thing to a protagonist involved in the story.

My major complaint is that I am still left with almost no impression of Alleyn as a person. Perhaps the author has rendered him deliberately enigmatic, as he is primarily seen through the (not too bright) eyes of one of the guests at the estate, but his behavior is so changeable that his real personality cannot be known.

There were enough good things here to warrant a look at the next one in the series, but if they’re all like this, I can see myself tiring of them quickly.