She raised the cup to her lips. Her head tipped back and back until the last drop must have been drained. Suddenly she gasped violently. She slewed half round as if to question the priest. Her hands shot outwards as though she offered him the cup. Then they parted inconsequentially. The cup flashed as it dropped to the floor. Her face twisted into an appalling grimace. Her body twitched violently. She pitched forward like an enormous doll, jerked twice and then was still.This is the catalyst that brings Bathgate's friend Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn of New Scotland Yard on the scene. Alleyn is a gentlemanly detective in the vein of Lord Peter Wimsey. He’s not as eccentric as some of the sophisticated detectives of the golden age but that’s what gives him a modern edge. With his mini pre-CSI team in tow, Detective-Inspector Fox, his assistant; Detective-Sergeant Bailey, the fingerprint expert and Dr. Curtis, the surgeon, Alleyn is determined to solve the case of who killed Cara Quayne.
The question in Ecstasy is classic: Who had access to the communion that killed the victim and what’s the motive? It’s immediately clear everybody had a motive and ability. If you don’t enjoy the classic set-ups, then you might not care for this story. But I like the old style and I thought the way Marsh devoted a chapter to each potential murderer and offered plenty of clues and red herrings was entertaining.
Early crime stories like Ecstasy often included a list of the characters involved in the case at the beginning. This roll call is a blessing for someone like me who has never been the most adept at remembering dozens of names and their occupations and connections. Another nice touch is a drawing of the murder scene and a quaint illustration of two scraps of burnt paper that Detective-Inspector Fox fished out from an ash tray with tweezers. These little touches were probably unnecessary but helped to spice up the storytelling.
I spotted this 1943 edition of Death in Ecstasy in a used bookstore. The dust cover is in tatters and will crumble if I’m not careful. A message on the back explains: This book is printed on thinner paper in accordance with a ruling of the War Production Board and the wartime need to conserve materials and manpower. I will probably find a archival sleeve to store it in to preserve any farther damage.
Ngaio Marsh is regarded as one the four original "Queens of Crime" along with Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers. These talented writers ruled crime fiction beginning in the 1920s. More information on Marsh can be found here and here.
For more Friday’s Forgotten Books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.