Book review: ‘A Man Lay Dead’ by Ngaio Marsh


The game was named “Murders.” None of the participants knew who was “it.” The “it” person waited until he or she was alone with one of the participants, and then informed that person that he or she was murdered. The murderer then rang a gong, was given two minutes to relocate, and then everyone gathered around to investigate the scene. The group then reassembled in an agreed-upon location to question one another in an attempt to identify the guilty party.

The host was known for his excellent parties, and an invitation to his estate for the weekend was a social coup. As it happened, however, after the gong, the assemblage found that the “murdered” victim was really quite dead with a dagger in his back. What was particularly concerning was that the killer must be one of the gamesmen. At this point, Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn of the British Metropolitan Police is called in with a fingerprint expert and a cameraman to solve the murder. What takes place then is a complicated unweaving of an involved plot.

Considerable is made of the science of the time — fingerprinting. And though the clues to the murder are slowly identified, Allen holds his conclusions to himself, only revealing them when the group is assembled near the end of the book. The author is clearly wanting to illustrate that Alleyn’s conclusions are sound and still surprise the reader as to the guilty party.

Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealand crime writer and theater director. Much of her writing was done at the same time as that of Agatha Christie, and Marsh, too, was recognized for her mysteries. New Zealand was part of the British Empire at the time, thus the British influence. “A Man Lay Dead” is somewhat slow going, but the involved plot, the game and the mystery’s solution makes for interesting reading.

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