The Blurb On The Back:
It’s business as usual for Mr Glossop as he does his regular rounds delivering wages to the government buildings scattered across New Zealand’s desolate Canterbury plains. But when his car breaks down he is stranded for the night at the lonely Mount Seaver Hospital, with the telephone lines down, a storm on its way and the nearby river about to burst its banks.
Trapped with him at Mount Seager are a group of quarantined soldiers with a serious case of cabin fever; three young employees embroiled in a tense love triangle, a dying elderly man, an elusive patient whose origins remain a mystery … and a potential killer.
When the payroll disappears from a locked safe and the hospital’s death toll starts to rise faster than normal, can the appearance of an English detective working in counterespionage be just a lucky coincidence – or is something more sinister afoot?
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The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
It’s December 1942 in New Zealand.
Mr Glossop is a payroll delivery clerk delivering wages to a number of government organisations and facilities in the run-up to Christmas when his van gets a puncture while he’s on his way to Mount Seager hospital (a dual military/civilian facility in the remote Canterbury plains). The van doesn’t carry a spare and given that a storm is on its way in across the mountains, Matron Ashdown (who runs the hospital with a no-nonsense, stern practicality) tells him that he’ll have to leave the £1000 still to be distributed in the hospital safe and stay the night until the transport bus and its driver, Sarah Warne, can tow him back to town the next morning.
In addition to the payroll, the safe is also playing host to an extra £100 won on a horse by the flirty hospital clerk Rosalind Farquharson, whose dalliance with the convalescing Private Maurice Sanders has both patients’ and staff’s tongues wagging. Sanders and his army buddies, Corporal Cuthbert Brayling (a Maori whose pregnant wife is living near the hospital) and Private Bob Pawcett are nearly at the end of their medical stay and have been testing the hospital’s rules and the mis-named Sister Comfort’s patience by sneaking to a nearby pub after hours.
Also present at the hospital are the sullen Sydney Brown, who has finally come to see his dying grandfather, and Father O’Sullivan a vicar who is there to minister to the pair of them while Dr Luke Hughes is also on call to look after the patients. And then there’s the mysterious patient with a room of his own in one of the military huts – a writer suffering from nervous distress who needs time to recuperate and recover who his fellow patients think is a stuck-up officer type. The patient is actually DCI Roderick Alleyn who’s undercover at the hospital on a top-secret counter-espionage investigation.
When Glossop checks on the safe in the middle of the night only to find it both open and empty, Alleyn is forced to break cover in order to save his secret investigation but what should be a simple matter of theft rapidly becomes complicated when one body goes missing and a new corpse turns up. With the breaking storm cutting the hospital off from the outside world, Alleyn is on his own, running two investigations at the same time and facing a room full of suspects whose tempers are fraying …
Using Ngaio Marsh’s opening chapters and title, Stella Duffy does a decent job of completing this INSPECTOR ALLEYN MYSTERIES crime novel such that I couldn’t tell who wrote what. The supporting cast are broadly drawn and the ending a little disappointing due to an antagonist’s identity, but overall the mystery kept me guessing and entertained until the end and I’d check out both the Marsh originals and Duffy’s work on the strength of this.
Although I am a fan of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, I haven’t read any of Ngaio Marsh’s books, although I have seen the BBC TV adaptation and am familiar with the dramatised version of Alleyn (as played by Patrick Malahide). As a result, I’m judging this book more as a standalone novel in the Golden Age style than on the basis of how it fits within Marsh’s existing canon. That said, I honestly couldn’t not detect any difference in writing styles between Marsh and Duffy so I couldn’t tell where Marsh’s chapters ended and Duffy’s began.
I enjoyed the slow set-up to this novel with Marsh/Duffy at pains to establish the cast of suspects and the crimes that have been committed before Alleyn is really brought onto the scene to investigate. The suspects are all very broadly drawn (although that’s not unusual in the genre) but they’re still entertaining – whether that’s Glossop’s pomposity, Sydney’s monosyllabic sullenness, Matron’s efficiency, the flirty cheekiness of Rosamund or the sensible decency of Sarah – and a lot of the fun comes from the fact that Alleyn deliberately leaves them together in a locked room where the temperature’s rising to see what comes out.
There’s no Fox or Troy in this book (although they are both mentioned and clearly in Alleyn’s thoughts) and Alleyn enlists the assistance of the eager-to-learn Sergeant Bix to serve as his wingman. I thought this was a good idea as Alleyn needs someone to bounce thoughts from and Bix can offer insights into the hospital layout and the people there while the dynamic also heightens how much Alleyn misses Fox. I knew from the TV series that Alleyn likes to make literary allusions, but there are a number of heavy-handed references to Shakespeare’s plays in this book, which at times did throw me out.
There are some neat twists within the plot and for the most part I enjoyed how Marsh/Duffy join up the dual investigations. However, things do become quite frayed towards the end of the book, in part because there’s a lot of running around in tunnels but mainly because of the revelation of an antagonist who hasn’t had much development on the page, which meant that I felt a little cheated.
Marsh and Duffy, being New Zealand authors, have a real feel for the setting and do a convincing job of conveying the conditions and geography of the area. I particularly enjoyed how sympathetic the authors are to Maori culture and the inclusion of Brayling as a Maori soldier is a nice inclusive touch.
All in all, although I can’t say how faithful this is to the original INSPECTOR ALLEYN MYSTERIES, I still thought it was an entertaining read that was faithful to the Golden Age style of crime fiction (with all the flaws and lustre that includes) and despite some criticisms of the plotting towards the end, I’d happily read both Marsh’s original mysteries and Duffy’s own work on the back of this.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.