Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh (1940)

A darts night at the Plume of Feathers, an old-fashioned pub at a small village in Devonshire, turns into a crime scene. Lawyer Luke Watchman, his cousin, Sebastian Parish who is a handsome and celebrated actor, and their friend, Norman Cubitt, a distinguished artist, are visiting the village after a year’s absence and are staying at the pub. Since their last visit some of the locals have formed the Coombe Left Movement and think that the class problem and other ills could be solved by a Revolution.
The Secretary and Treasurer of the Movement is a man called Robert Legge. On the night of the dart game a man is murdered by poison and an inquest is held into the death. Cyanide was found on one of the darts and when Legge had thrown it, it had hit a man’s hand and he had died afterwards.
An inquest was held but no one was charged.

The coroner was Mr. Mordant, a sixty-seven-year old who suffered from dyspepsia:

He seemed to regard his fellow men with brooding suspicion, he sighed a great deal, and had a trick of staring despondently at the merest acquaintances. He at one time specialised in bacteriology and it was said of him that he saw human beings as mere playgrounds for brawling micrococci. It was also said that when Mr Mordant presided over an inquest, the absence in court of the corpse was not felt.

One man not happy with the lack of a conviction, presents himself to Scotland Yard and states his opinion on the case. The Yard decides to help with the investigation but the detectives have a chilly reception when they arrive at the Plume of Feathers. The police are part of the established order which the Coombe Left Movement considers to be corrupt to the core. The anti-authoritarian attitudes and hostility among the locals involved in the group hampers the investigation.

As this book was published in 1940, I thought that there would be references to the war but apart from a couple of passing comments about a soldier or two waiting to be called up, that was about as far as it went. This little village seemed completely isolated from the wider world. However, according to my copy of the book, it seems that Marsh finished writing it on May 3rd, 1939, and she was in New Zealand, so that may account for that.

On September 3, 1939 Britain declared war. The British Communist Party at first supported the war, but within a few weeks its line changed. On October 7, a manifesto was issued which referred to an ‘imperialist war’ and called for a government which would begin peace negotiations. Thereafter, the party’s official line remained essentially the same until June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, whereupon the Party entered into support for the war.

Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) had a wonderful sense of humour which that trickles into conversations and comes out in her characters. She captures all the little idiosyncrasies of character found in people who live at close quarters and who hold opposing views.
In one conversation, Mr. Nark, a prosperous farmer, was denouncing capitalism and its lack of a scientific outlook to Mr Oates, the village constable who was hoping to rise in his profession.

‘Do you know, Dick Oates,’ continued Mr. Nark, ‘that you’ve got a rudimentary tail?’

‘And if I have, which I don’t admit – ‘

‘Ask Mr Cubitt, then. He’s an artist and no doubt has studied the skeleton of man in its present stage of evolution. The name escapes me for the moment, but we’ve all got it. Isn’t that correct, sir?’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Mr Cubitt hurriedly. ‘Quite right Mr Nark.’

‘There you are,’ said Mr Nark. ‘Apes, every manjack of us, and our arms have only grown shorter through us knocking off the habit of hanging from trees.’

‘What about our tongues?’ asked Mr Oates.

‘Never mind about them,’ answered Mr Nark warmly, ‘do you know that an unborn child’s got gills like a fish?’

‘That doesn’t make a monkey out of it, however.’

‘It goes to show, though.’


‘You want to educate yourself. In a proper government the State ‘ud educate the police so’s they’d understand these deep matters for themselves. They know all about that in Russia. Scientific necessity that’s what it is.’

‘I don’t see how knowing I’ve got a bit of a tail and once had a pair of gills is going to get me any nearer to a sergeant’s stripe,’ reasoned Mr. Oates. ‘What I’d like is a case.’

Mr Oates gets his wish.

Roderick Alleyn, at 43 years of age, the youngest chief-inspector at New Scotland Yard and his sidekick, Mr. Fox, a big, burly fellow of about fifty (affectionately called Br’er Fox by Alleyn) have a good working relationship and an obvious liking for each other.
The case is convoluted and just when you think the murderer has been identified, a piece of evidence throws suspicion on someone else. I thought a couple of people could have done the deed and was surprised by the outcome. It was a person I’d suspected at first and then changed my mind.

Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealander and spent most of her life in Christchurch in the South Island, so I was impressed that she could describe the English countryside as well as if she had lived there all her life.
Marsh originally studied art and toured New Zealand with a Shakespearean company. She was credited for single-handedly reviving Shakespeare in New Zealand and encouraging young performers. Considered a ‘Crime Queen’ alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham, she wrote thirty-two novels featuring her detective, Roderick Alleyn. The theatre and painting feature in her stories and Alleyn is married to an artist. This background in the arts is unique to her work and adds richness to her novels.

“Suspicions, Bacon remarked, that are artificially nourished by the tales and whisperings of others, have stings.”

Linking to the 1940 Club & TBR 23 in 23 Challenge

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