False Scent by Ngaio Marsh

Mary Bellamy is a star of the London stage – possibly a fading star, but a star, nonetheless. So when she dies with a faceful of insect repellent at her fiftieth birthday party, Superintendent Alleyn investigates. But is seems that everyone at the party, from her husband to her designer, seems to have a reason for disliking the temperamental old battleaxe – but did anyone have a strong enough reason to murder her?

Ngaio Marsh was a contemporary of Agatha Christie, writing 32 novels featuring Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard from 1934 to 1982. They have been dramatised by the BBC with Patrick Malahide as Alleyn (and in New Zealand, starring George “Wexford” Baker) and she is regarded as one of the four “Queens of Crime” – alongside Christie, Sayers and Allingham. However looking around these days, you’d be pressed to find any of her works on sale in a bookshop.

False Scent, from 1960, is the 21st Alleyn mystery and features a recurring theme in Marsh’s work, the theatre. After a disappointing encounter with Clutch of Constables a number of months ago, is this enough to convince me that Marsh needs a re-evaluation?

Um… no, not really.

A book of two halves, this one, and I’m rather surprised at myself as to which way round my opinions fall.

You see, one thing that always bugs me in a whodunnit is when nobody-dunnit for too much of the book – i.e. we wait around an interminable amount of time before someone drops dead and the author has time to hide the clues when you don’t even know what you’re looking for. It takes about 100 pages for Mary Bellamy to get murdered, and we spend a lot of time meeting her inner circle and getting a flavour for her life and her faults. And that’s the best bit of the book. It’s really well written and very involving. Then Alleyn turns up.

You see, I find Alleyn boring. He doesn’t demonstrate any interesting characteristics at all, apart from his odd nickname for his sidekick, Inspector Fox – “Foxkin”. Weird. And he also, in this book at least, is thick. Very, very thick. There’s an obvious method as to how the murder was committed that a child would spot and you find yourself astonished when Alleyn twigs the important bit (p200 out of 240) because it’s so obvious you assumed he’d realised it all the time and just hadn’t mentioned it.

Marsh cheats a little too – once you realise the given thing, the murderer becomes pretty clear if you were given the witness statements clearly. Maybe I had dozed off by this point, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t share these in order to keep a lot more suspects in the frame.

There’s also a certain inevitability about the shape of the plot and while I had two candidates for the murderer – an interesting outside bet and a predictable one, unfortunately it was the second who proved to be the ne’er-do-well.

It picks up the lovely tone of the opening section for a rather moving epilogue, but it’s too late to save it, I’m afraid.

One day, I’ll cross paths with Ms Marsh again – not in the near future, however.


  1. I’ve always been a bit on the fence about Marsh (I much prefer Margery Allingham) but decided to giver her stuff another go and I literally just bought this book last week – if only I’d waited!!!


    • The thing is, I’m sure someone recommended this one to me as one of her best. I can see the good in it – when she writes about the theatre, her writing sparkles but the investigation does seem to be an inconvenience to the story. Which is a bit of a problem in a detective story…


  2. I have read only one Marsh, “Off With His Head”. It’s good, but it could’ve been much better. It’s an apparently impossible decapitation during a dance performance. The solution wasn’t particularly well-disguised (oh, it was *clever*, but for several hints, the hand was not quicker than the eye), and a lot of the twists were ridiculously simple to spot. The reconstruction scene at the end is marvellous, and yet, I can’t really remember anything distinguishing about Alleyn. BTW, I recall his nickname for Fox being “Brer Fox”.


  3. In my experience, the books tend to get bogged down about halfway through. We often get interminable interview scenes with the suspects, and the temptation is to skip them (which makes it hard to work them out before the final reveal). She makes some real howlers about poisons, unlike the more expert Christie. By the way, I also find Alleyn a bit dull, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Not to jump on the bandwagon but count me among the ranks of those who have read one or two by Marsh and never gone back. I thought maybe I’d picked a dud but after reading this post and comments I’m starting to wonder.


  5. […] Well, that’s the first year of my blog. The primary aim was always a selfish one – to break the reader’s block I had developed over the past few years – and, with The Ice Princess making it one hundred reviews, I think we can safely say that the block has been overcome. The secondary aim, namely to find and praise current writers who are keeping the mystery genre alive, has ebbed and flowed throughout the year. At times, I’ve been focussing on the Golden Age more than I meant to, hence the Henry Merrivale page and the poor neglected Ellery Queen bibliography, but in recent weeks, at least, I’ve tried to return to the original plan. It’s been ten reviews since I tackled a book by an author who’s no longer writing (Ngaio Marsh’s False Scent). […]


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