Reviews for Night at the Vulcan, by Ngaio Marsh

smcleish's review

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Originally published on my blog here in October 1998.

Opening Night, something of a return to form for Ngaio Marsh after a series of somewhat disappointing stories, is closely related to the short story I Can Find My Way Out, with which it shares a setting. Following the murder at the Dolphin Theatre which is the subject of the earlier story, it has lain empty for the best part of fifteen years. In the superstitious business of acting, nobody wanted to reopen such an unlucky theatre.

Eventually, it is acquired by well-known actor Adam Poole, to put on a new play by the distinguished author John James Rutherford. He is joined in this by Helena Hamilton, famous as the leading lady to many of Adam Poole's performances though rather older, and her husband, the once great now alcoholic actor Clark Bennington, resentful of the old love affair between Adam and Helena.

The play calls for an actress who resembles Adam, and Bennington insists that his neice Gay Gainsford is cast. This suits no one other than Bennington, for she is not interested in the type of symbolical drama Rutherford writes, is helplessly out of her depth, unhappy about having to change her appearance to more closely resembly Adam (whom she is not very like and finds it difficult to give the impression of resembling by apparently unconsciously copying his mannerisms on stage). She was far happier playing in regional rep, doing parts she could understand and which suited her. She becomes even more uneasy after the appearance on the scene of Martyn Tarne.

Martyn Tarne, a young actress from New Zealand seeking work in London, is really the main character in the novel, which is told from her point of view (though in the third person). She is distantly related to Adam, but doesn't wish to presume on their kinship, so that his theatre is the last that she goes to looking for work. She has missed the auditions, but overhears a conversation by chance and volunteers to replace Helena's usual dresser, who is ill.

That in itself would not be a problem, but she rather unfortunately possesses a startling resemblance to Adam, sufficiently so to provoke rumours that she may be a result of a love affair of Adam's from a tour of New Zealand twenty years ago. Her appearance and her aptitude for the part earn her the role of Gay's understudy, and pressure mounts for her to play the part outright, particularly from Rutherford. This culminates when Gay refuses to go on for the first night, and Martyn has a great triumph.

The theatrical fairy story is immediately overshadowed by the death in his dressing room of Bennington, in a marder got up to look like a suicide inspired by the earlier Dolphin murder.

Perhaps a little on the soft-centred side to rank with Marsh's best novels, Opening Night is nevertheless an excellent example of the crime fiction genre; reading it is an enjoyable experience.

lucyb's review

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One of Marsh's more uneven efforts... It contains a few favorite moments, and has a nice structure, but feels more rushed than her best efforts. The characterization is interesting but unfinished, and sometimes reliant on stereotype.

I reread this recently and found it more engaging than in the past. Yes, it's uneven, but it's also very well put-together, with good atmosphere.

singinglight's review

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I like detectives. Not all of them by any means, but I like them. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspector Grant, and most recently, Inspector Alleyn. Any new-to-me Alleyn mystery is a cause for rejoicing, the donning of a smoking jacket and the putting up of an 'occupied' sign on my (non-existent) study door. Lord Peter is perhaps my favorite but Alleyn comes close.

I'm not sure how many Alleyns I've read so far; my wild guess is about ten. They have, at this point, started to get a bit formulaic, although the characters are always a delight. Night at the Vulcan was interesting partly because it varied the formula a bit and also because Alleyn managed to solve the mystery in a single night.

The story starts out with a young woman named Martyn Tarne who intended to audition for a small part in a play but arrives too late. She obviously has no money and is at the end of her rope. She manages to wing a job as the leading lady's dresser. They very quickly notice Martyn's strong resemblance to the leading man, Adam Poole. A complicated situation results. Of course there is a murder--someone no one likes or will miss very much. Alleyn arrives on the scene accompanied by Fox and Mike Lamprey, from A Surfeit of Lampreys. And of course the murderer is caught, although not quite in the usual way.

Night at the Vulcan is one of Marsh's more clever mysteries. The cast of characters is not as appealing as they often are, but the two main characters remain sympathetic. All in all, it was an enjoyable book and satisfying book.