Ngaio Marsh's Death and the Dancing Footman
Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman is a classic country-house murder mystery. It is also a cozy English clue-puzzle novel. But unlike many of her contemporaries, Marsh has always been just as interested in character as plot. “I nearly always begin a book with the characters rather than the situation,” Marsh admitted. “Then I ask myself which of them would be capable of committing murder under certain circumstances” (Knox 1968).
In Death and the Dancing Footman, Jonathan Royal invites eight people to his country estate for a weekend visit. The characters are connected to one another in a variety of ways; most of them, in fact, are rivals in love or business. Tensions mount during their time together but no one can leave the mansion because of a blinding snowstorm. Then one of the guests is found murdered and Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn – who is visiting friends nearby – is called in to investigate.
Inviting enemies to spend a weekend together is Jonathan’s idea of amusement. “Dear me, it’s a long time since I looked forward so much to a party,” he admits (304). As Jonathan hopes, the isolated setting exacerbates tensions. Lady Hersey asks the other guests, “Has it struck either of you that in all probability, whether we like it or not, we are shut up together in this house with no chance of escape?” (371). Once the snowstorm strands them all, she turns to her host, saying, “Soon you’ll hardly be able to see out of your window, Mr. Mandrake. What are we going to do, shut up in the house together, hating each other?” (374).
Hatred leads to murder, but, as in many Marsh novels, the murder does not occur until midway through the story. By delaying the crime, Marsh increases the reader’s interest in the victim’s life and heightens the impact of the murder.
In my post on Final Curtain, I pointed out that the petty intrigues and jealousies of a group of people often provide the focus for Marsh’s ironic social commentary. As a native New Zealander who spent many years in England, she had the advantage of an outsider’s perspective. Marsh is one of the few novelists who has successfully combined the detective novel and the novel of manners.
Death and the Dancing Footman is a skilled example of the snow-bound mystery. This type of story combines elements of the country-house and locked-room novels (Symons 2005, 53). The closed-world setting not only increases tensions among characters but also limits the suspect pool. Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap and Marsh’s Death of a Fool are other examples of this type of novel.
Although the action of the narrative is isolated, the hostilities and animosities among characters reflect the wider world of a wartime society. World War II is the fitting backdrop to the action; references to it are scattered throughout the book.
Even though Marsh worked within the conventions of the Golden Age detective novel, she skilfully transcended them. Her books “are still read with pleasure while so many of her contemporaries are only names in the reference books of crime” (James 2009, 121). Marsh’s acute social commentary and convincing depiction of characters make her novels stand out from the crowded field of murder mysteries.
James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Knox, Valerie. “Ngaio Marsh: Crime Writer Who Admits She’s Squeamish.” The Times. November 6, 1968.
Marsh, Ngaio. Death and the Dancing Footman. 1941. In Surfeit of Lampreys, Death and the Dancing Footman, Colour Scheme. London: HarperCollins, 2009.
Scaggs, John. Crime Fiction. London: Routledge, 2005.