Taking place at an English country estate during a house party weekend, Ngaio Marsh's first Roderick Alleyn mystery, written in 1934, forecasts the later success of her successful thirty-two book Alleyn series. Invited to the home of Sir Hubert Handesley, where they will participate in a "murder" game, the houseguests know that one of them will be chosen to be the "murderer" and that s/he will select and "murder" one of the other guests. In this case, however, when the gong sounds and the lights come on, they discover that one of the guests has actually been murdered.
Written in the tradition of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham, this "closed room" mystery draws Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard into the case. A character who, at this point, has yet to achieve the unique characteristics which eventually made him such a popular detective, Alleyn interviews the guests and staff, and, surprisingly, draws guest Nigel Bathgate, the cousin of the victim, into the investigation of the murder. As Alleyn and Bathgate investigate, subplots involving an antique Oriental dagger, an anarchist Russian secret society, a grisly murder in London, and the romantic attachments of the victim unfold.
No more realistic than other mysteries of the period, this one, too, follows a formula, with surprising discoveries which strain credulity, at the same time that the author is tempting the reader to solve the case. Much is made of the floor plan of the estate and the alibis of the guests, but ultimately, the solution depends not on logic, but on information which the author does not give her readers until the conclusion, making logical deduction impossible here. Still the novel is fun to read as a period piece, a mystery which calls to mind a long-lost way of life with all its superficial pleasures and amusements. Mary Whipple