Blackmail in high society

Death in a white tie comes immediately before the previously reviewed Overture to death. I think it's one of Ngaio Marsh's best Inspector Alleyn mysteries. Alleyn asks an old friend to help out when there are rumours of blackmail in high society. With a number of victims, all refusing to come forward (for obvious reasons) Alleyn asks friendly Lord Robert "Budge" Gospell to keep an eye on events. Gospell however proves to be rather too good at his job, and ends up murdered in a taxi cab following a debutante's ball.

It's a great piece of Golden Age Detective fiction, and shows you exactly what could be so good about this sort of fiction in the inter-war period. It's a cleverly constructed tale with a number of suspects, clues galore, the odd red herring, some well-defined characters, and a hint (just a hint!) of romance. The London of the 1930s and the madness of the "season" are all beautifully portrayed. This is crime writing at its finest, even Christie some years later used a technique from Overture to death to get rid of a vital clue.

What places it above many other crime novels of the period is its humanity. This isn't just about the fun of solving the puzzle, Marsh places her central character, Alleyn, in a difficult situation - desperate to catch the criminal, not least because he blames himself for encouraging his friend to join in with the investigation, and so be drawn to his own doom; but also knowing that the murderer (who will almost certainly be hanged) is quite likely to be someone he knows well. Here, as with Lord Peter Wimsey, you see the man behind the detective, a great influence on later writers. Alleyn, I think, could easily be the father of P.D. James' Adam Dalgleish.

Most of all though it's a gripping read, and my favourite Ngaio Marsh so far. Well worth reading if you want to see why crime fiction of this period is so highly rated.


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