|Publisher||Lee Furman (US)|
|Media type||Print ()|
|Preceded by||Death in a White Tie|
|Followed by||Death at the Bar|
Overture to Death is a detective novel by Ngaio Marsh; it is the eighth novel to feature Roderick Alleyn, and was first published in 1939. The plot concerns a murder during an amateur theatrical performance in a Dorset village, which Alleyn and his colleague Fox are dispatched from Scotland Yard to investigate and duly solve.
The novel is a classic example of what crime writer Colin Watson termed "The Mayhem Parva School" of genteel English village murder mystery from the "Golden Age" between the world wars. Despite the ingeniously gruesome murder method, it is essentially a social comedy of manners, with the amusingly awful rivalry between two ageing spinster ladies to dominate their cosy little society of village, church and charitable affairs, each performing a favourite piano piece on every possible occasion, reminiscent of E F Benson's Mapp and Lucia novels of the same period.
It is the third novel in which Alleyn's love interest, the painter Agatha Troy features. Although she does not appear, she is engaged to marry Alleyn, who writes to her, outlining the kind of marriage he hopes they will enjoy. By the next book, they are married. To make way for this new direction in her detective's progress, his original 'Watson', the journalist Nigel Bathgate makes one of his final appearances in this novel.
In the picturesque Vale-of-Pen-Cuckoo (Dorset), the squire, vicar, GP and community's élite stage a fictional West End hit 'Shop Windows' in the village hall in aid of charity. The steady build-up of tensions from the initial formation of a committee, through the choice, casting and rehearsal of the play, culminates on opening night, when a last-minute substitute pianist sits down to play Sergei Rachmaninoff's familiar Prelude in C-sharp minor by way of an overture, only to be shot dead by a Colt 32 hidden in the instrument and fired by the pianist's use of the soft pedal on the Prelude's ponderous opening chords. Alleyn and Fox arrive hot-foot from Scotland Yard to identify which of the cast of possible suspects has replaced naughty village boy Georgie Biggins' 'Twiddletoy' and water-pistol booby-trap with a real gun.
The suspects include the vain, pompous squire Jocelyn Jerningham, his son and heir Henry (determined to marry against his father's wishes the local rector's actress daughter Dinah Copeland), the local GP Dr Templett, who is neglecting his invalid wife to pursue the glamorous, newly-arrived widow, Selia Ross, the cause of much local gossip... and two rival middle-aged spinsters, the Jernighams' cousin, Eleanor Prentice, smug, sly and sanctimonious, and the community's wealthiest member, the bluff, arrogant Idris Campanula. The rivalry of these two formidable and deeply unhappy women develops beyond their jockeying for prominence in the play and performance of its overture - is it to be Miss Campanula's Rachmaninoff Prelude or Miss Prentice's 'Venetian Suite' by Ethelbert Nevin? - to a more painful and destructive competition for the affections of the embarrassed, well-meaning and very handsome rector, Revd Walter Copeland. An important late witness appears in the malodorously shifty and bucolic poacher Saul Tranter.
Biographer Margaret Lewis describes how "her extended stays with the Rhodes family in various country houses... gave Ngaio the material she needed for several novels. Overture to Death is set in the kind of idiosyncratic country village that she knew well. Character dominates the novel... [T]he New Statesman reviewer accused the writer of treating crime fiction 'as a convenient vase to arrange her characters in'. Other reviewers admired her talent for developing character and were soon recommending that she forget detection and concentrate on straight fiction instead."
In her more recent Marsh biography, Joanne Drayton discusses at some length Overture to Death 's central theme of love pursued, frustrated or fulfilled, contrasting the forbidden Henry-Dinah romance with the toxic Idris-Eleanor rivalry for the Rector's affections. Drayton also compares Alleyn's developing love interest in Troy with the late 1930s development of parallel love interests into marriage for Dorothy L Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Margery Allingham's Albert Campion, whereas Agatha Christie's series detectives Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple are characters definitively unsusceptible to a credible love interest, which Agatha Christie is quoted as finding "a terrible bore in detective stories".
The novel ends with Alleyn holding an unopened letter from Troy and asking Bathgate a question. ' "If one could send every grand passion to the laboratory, do you suppose, in each resulting formula, we should find something of Dinah and Henry's young idyll, something of Templett's infatuation, something of Miss P.'s madness, and even something of old Jernigham's foolishness?" "Who knows?" said Nigel. "Not I," said Alleyn. '
In a 1945 article in ''The New Yorker'', ''Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?'', the American literary critic Edmund Wilson(1895-1972) strongly criticized the artificiality and literary shortcomings of the classic Golden Age whodunit. This is quoted in many subsequent studies of crime fiction, including Howard Haycraft's 1946 The Art of the Mystery Story. Wilson singles out the Queens of Crime of the "English genteel" school, including Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, whose The Nine Tailors and Overture To Death respectively are subjected to criticism. Thus Wilson on Overture To Death:
- "It would be impossible, I should think, for anyone with the faintest feeling for words to describe the unappetizing sawdust which Miss Marsh has poured into her pages as 'excellent prose' or as prose at all except in the sense that distinguishes prose from verse. And here again the book is mostly padding. There is the notion that you could commit a murder by rigging up a gun in a piano, so that the victim will shoot himself when he presses down the pedal, but this embedded in the dialogue and doings of a lot of faked-up English country people who are even more tedious than those of The Nine Tailors. "
In his 1979 study of Agatha Christie, A Talent To Deceive, the English crime writer Robert Barnard vigorously countered Wilson's critique of Sayers, Christie, Marsh, Allingham, Chandler, Hammett, Stout et al:
- "They were all, he concluded, beneath contempt: the stories were childish in the extreme - ridiculous tissues of improbabilities: the characterisation was at best conventional: the writing was dreadful beyond belief... This was all very well - and granted [ Wilson's ] point of view one might agree with most or all of his strictures. But he chose to call one of his essays on the subject Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? and this is a question that ought to have given him furiously to think... [ With reference to Christie's eye-watering sales figures ] if the answer is not 'everybody', it is as near to it as any writer in our time has come. But of course mere popularity will not still the voices of those who, like Edmund Wilson, find her books trashy."
- Watson, Colin (1971). Snobbery With Violence: English Crime Stories & Their Audience. Methuen. ISBN 978057 1254033.
- Lewis, Margaret. Ngaio Marsh: A Life. Chatto & Windus. p. 81. ISBN 0 7012 0985 2.
- Drayton, Joanne (2008). Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime. Harper Collins. pp. 136–147. ISBN 978000 7328680.
- Wilson, Edmund (20 January 1945). "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?". The New Yorker.
- Haycraft, Howard (1946). The Art of the Mystery Story. Carroll & Graf. p. 395. ISBN 978088 1840568.
- Barnard, Robert (1979). A Talent To Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie. Collins. pp. 2–3. ISBN 08929 69113.