As part of my discovery of (slightly?) forgotten mystery writers of the old days, I should probably have started to read Ngaio Marsh with another title. When In Rome is a late title of hers, and I’m not really convinced by the mix between the 1970s atmosphere (stereotyped by psychedelic fashion, drugs, sex and student unrest) and the typically 1930s mystery setting. I kept imagining the characters harboring wide ties, huge plastic glasses and polyester flared pants and… it distracted me too much.
The mystery per se is structured in a classical way: a motley group of foreigners (mainly British, but Dutch as well) have paid for a high-class tour of Rome led by a very dubious character, Sebastian Mailer. From the very beginning we get to know him as a depraved drug addict, in close relations with the Roman underworld, a blackmailer (therefore his last name?), possibly gay (slight homophobic allusions, but it was 1970 alright). Most participants (a retired major, a lady and a couple of other aristocrats… your typical tourist group indeed!) have been lured by the presence of famous writer Barnaby Grant, but the latter is less than enthusiastic about the day. As they visit an ancient crypt (the famous closed room with a lot of sudden darkness), Sebastian Mailer disappears. Marsh recurrent inspector Roderick Alleyn, who joined the tour incognito to uncover Mailer’s participation to an international drug ring, takes the lead of the investigation.
I wasn’t convinced by the drug ring subplot… It obviously rang like a concession to the period, but it really looks like your old grandma’s view of the experience – and after all Dame Marsh was really 75 when the book was published! Her descriptions of what exactly happens in the hashish bars in Rome are more than elusive and makes you smile benignly… You won’t get raunchy scenes with Dame Marsh, and I must say that character developments seemed more artificial than in an Agatha Christie mystery, in my opinion.
But overall it was highly entertaining because of the pure mental mechanism of the closed chamber murder, which Marsh masters to perfection. We can’t care less if we’re in a Roman crypt in the 1970s or a library in a British mansion in the 1930s… it’s a Cluedo game (I’m told it’s called Clue in the US??) and it’s fun up to the resolution. I’ll probably try another, earlier mystery of hers. Can anyone suggest a good title?