The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Roderick Alleyn

There’s a lot of excitement here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… Today begins another thrilling and dangerous journey through the crime fiction alphabet. Once again I’m very much indebted to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for putting this journey together.

My choice for today’s first stop – the letter A – is one of the more famous of Scotland Yard’s detectives, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn makes his debut in 1934’s A Man Lay Dead, in which he investigates the stabbing death of Charles Rankin. It all takes place at a house party hosted by Sir Hubert Handesley, who has arranged a “murder game” in which someone is designated as “the murderer” and someone else “the victim.” The other guests are charged with finding out who “the murderer” is. When Rankin is really killed, Alleyn is called in to investigate and he discovers that there is no shortage of suspects. Alleyn goes on to feature in thirty-one other novels that take place in several different kinds of settings.

There are several appealing things about Alleyn’s character. He’s “well-born,” Oxford-educated and titled, but he’s not overly class-conscious. For instance, in Tied Up in Tinsel, he investigates the disappearance and murder of Alfred Moult, who’s killed during a Christmas house-party given by Hilary Bill-Tasman. The easiest and most obvious suspects are the members of Bill-Tasman’s house staff, all of whom are former convicted criminals. They themselves assume that Alleyn will suspect them so at first they hide what they know about the crime. But Alleyn soon proves that he hasn’t drawn any conclusions about them yet. In this case and in several other cases, Alleyn shows that he is no respecter of class and wealth when it comes to finding a murderer.

Alleyn is a skilled detective, but he doesn’t solve cases through sheer brilliant guesses; that, too, is appealing. He draws conclusions and makes deductions from what he sees, hears and reads. For example, in Enter a Murderer, Alleyn is attending a production of The Rat and the Beaver at the Unicorn Theatre when one of the actors Arthur Surbonadier is shot by a prop gun that’s been tampered with and left loaded. Alleyn begins to investigate and gets the evidence that he can through interviews with witnesses and suspects as well as the evidence such as the gun, a pair of gloves and the body. When he deduces what must have happened, he lays a trap for the murderer to see if he’s right. In other words, Alleyn solves crimes through evidence, logic and deduction, not magic.

At the beginning of the series, Alleyn is single but in Artists in Crime he meets noted artist Agatha Troy. In that novel, Alleyn is called in when model Sonia Gluck is murdered during at a gathering at Troy’s home Tatler’s End House.  What Alleyn’s boss doesn’t know at first is that Alleyn and Troy have already met during a sea voyage. That first meeting didn’t go particularly well although Alleyn is already smitten with Troy. When she becomes a suspect in the murder, things get even more awkward. But as Alleyn soon learns, she isn’t the only suspect by any means. By the end of the novel, they’ve established a relationship and it develops later into marriage and parenthood. Alleyn’s family life also makes him an appealing detective. In fact, considering that the novels were written mainly during the Golden Age, one could argue that he’s quite ahead of his time in terms of the domestic partnership he and Troy establish. It’s obvious that he loves his wife very much and doesn’t like the thought of her in danger. That’s in fact his main concern in Tied Up in Tinsel – that his wife may be in jeopardy. At the same time though, Alleyn knows very well that his wife is smart, skilled and observant; he doesn’t really condescend to her. He misses her very much when they’re apart and enjoys her company when they’re together. They do have their domestic stresses now and again and that just makes Alleyn more human. Yes, he’s actually a police detective with a strong marriage and no problem drinking habit. 😉

Besides his personal development as the series goes on, Alleyn also develops professionally. He rises in the ranks of the police, ending up as Detective Chief Superintendent. He also gets involved in several international cases and does some wartime service too. That varied professional experience makes him a more well-rounded character. It also gives his character depth, believability and interest.

Roderick Alleyn is often compared to other “gentleman detectives “such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh. And there are some similarities among these men. But Alleyn is a unique character with a love of theatre, a solid detective’s intuition and a sense of humour too. Little wonder I decided to feature him first in this meme.

Want to join the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme yourself? It’s a lot of fun! Just add your blog to the set of links and come along for the ride. Thrills and chills guaranteed!


Filed under Ngaio Marsh, Roderick Alleyn

36 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Roderick Alleyn

  1. Alleyn is a favorite of mine, particularly because, as you note, he develops and grows over the course of his career. My favorite, to be honest, is Troy, who is a marvelous character. I am particularly fond of “A Clutch of Constables” because it is much more Troy’s mystery that Alleyn’s – he sort of comes in at the end (and comments off-stage during the course of the book) to clear things up. I am looking forward to the rest of your alphabet!

    Les Blatt

    • Les – I like Agatha Troy an awful lot myself. In fact, I always thought that Marsh was quite ahead of her time in Troy’s character development. I really do like her relationship with Alleyn, too, and you’re quite right that she does shine in A Clutch of Constables. Thanks for your kind words, too 🙂

  2. p881

    I loved the theater settings in this series. One of my favorites. And, of course, the art that Troy brought into it. Quite satisfying from start to last. PA. PS. We have out place rented in La Jolla for next year. See you then.

    • Patti – So very glad to hear you’ll be in La Jolla next year! I’m looking forward to seeing you 🙂 And I agree 100%; the art angle that Troy brings to these mysteries adds so much to them. And of course the theatre angle is terrific, too. It’s part of what makes this a great series I think.

  3. Nice bio of Alleyn! Ngaio Marsh’s books got me interested in theatre, and now I’m writing theatre crime myself a decade or so later. It’s such a rich location for quirky characters and colourful settings, with groups of disparate people thrown together for a short time. The ideal breeding ground for entertaining crime!

    • Bev – Oh, that’s so neat that you’ve been inspired by Marsh’s books! You’re so right too that the theatre makes a wonderful setting for a murder mystery. There’s so much drama (yes, pun intended 😉 ) so many different people as you say and lots of opportunity for intrigue.

  4. I think Ngaio Marsh’s contribution to personalising the central detective in the police procedural/ crime fiction novel is often understimated Margot. She precedes Creasey’s Gideon series by a a good 15 years. Thanks for kicking the Crime Fiction Alphabet off.

    • Kerrie – I think you’re right about Marsh. She certainly created a sleuth whom we really can see as a human being and you’re right; the Gideon series doesn’t begin until 1955. Marsh was ahead of her time in a lot of ways and that’s certainly one of them. And I’m excited for another run through the Crime Fiction Alphabet, so thanks for organising it, Kerrie.

  5. Thank you for writing about Ngaio Marsh and her detective Roderick Alleyn. I have never read her mysteries before and look forward to reading at least some of them soon. It’s a lively exercise to compare the various sleuths, as you have noted towards the end, and the mysteries they are called upon to solve. While all detectives investigate crimes, usually murders, there is always a very unique aspect to each which clearly distinguishes one from the other. For instance, Christie and Marsh, I have noticed, were contemporaries who pushed their creativity to the limit to make their respective famous characters stand apart from the others, which explains the variety in crime-fiction. Good luck with the remaining Alphabets in Crime Fiction!

    • Prashant – You have a very well-taken point that in the best crime fiction, there is something unique about the detective that makes her or him solve crimes in a distinct way. And that’s one thing that keeps the detective fresh and interesting for the reader. It also, as you say, helps to distinguish one sleuth from another. And thanks for the good wishes; I really do enjoy being a part of the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme.

  6. Another great biog – thanks Margot. And I’ve never read TINSEL so I am definitely going to track that one down. In my mind (for some peculiar reason) I always thinks of the Alleyn and Campion characterers together, though this has little real rationale other than the fact that Allingham and March started publishing at around the same time.

    So, do you have a single Alleyn favourite?

    • Sergio – I recommend Tied Up in Tinsel. Lots of interesting characters, Marsh’s trademark humour, and of course the terrific relationship between Alleyn and Troy. It’s a good mystery plot too. And you know what’s odd is that I don’t usually group Campion and Alleyn together but I do think of Tey’s Alan Grant when I think of Alleyn. No relevancy there either – go figure!
      I haven’t really one single favourite among the Alleyn novels. I like Overture to Death for the really ingenious plot, Tied Up in Tinsel and A Clutch of Constables for their focus on Agatha Troy, Enter a Murderer for the theatre atmosphere (although it’s by no means the only one) and Spinsters in Jeopardy for a look at the “family” side of Alleyn’s character. See what I mean?

      • Thanks Margot – I read several of the Marsh books decades ago but they have slightly faded from memory. Doesn’t help probably that more recently I have watched the TV adaptations starring Patrick Malahide (Simon Williams and George Baker have also played the role on TV incidentally) which were perfectly entertaining but which tends to mess with my reccolections a bit! Thanks for all the great info as always.

        • Sergio – Doesn’t TV always do that to one?! I find it much easier to keep novels organised in my mind when I don’t focus on the television/film versions. Or maybe it’s just my creaky old age…

        • Well it certainly does for me Maegot. My trouble I suppose is that I tend to consume them hand in hand (sic). I got interested in mysteries in my very early teens just when I was falling in love with movies and somehow I always seem to fold them into each other (hence the blog I suppose). It is also a linguistic issue I suspect – I read a lot of these sorts of books for the first time translated into Italian and now have been re-reading them, for several years, in the original – and tthe same goes for the movies and TV shows I gobbled up in the 70s and 80s. Apologies for my terrible typos by the way …

        • Sergio – Now that’s interesting! I’ve always thought that your particular combination of interest in film, television and books presents such an interesting perspective on the genre, but I can see how it could also jumble things up. And when you through translation in, too, little wonder one thing melds into another. And no worries about the typos. You should see some of mine…

        • ‘Maegot’? Sorry Margot, sorry … stupid banana fingers!

      • Margot – to your list of favorites, may I add “Death of a Peer” (British title: “A Surfeit of Lampreys”)? A well written book, interesting mystery, and the indescribable Lamprey family make this one of my personal favorites.

        • Les – Oh, thank you for mentioning A Surfeit of Lampreys! I just love that Lamprey family, and the humor running through that novel is terrific. A neatly done “impossible” kind of murder, too, in my opinion.

  7. Great pick, Margot! And thanks for whetting my appetite for these books…it’s been a while since I’ve read them and I think it’s time for a re-read. I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed Alleyn as a character.

    • Elizabeth – Thank you 🙂 Glad you enjoyed this profile. And I need to re-read some of these mysteries myself. It’s been too long and I really do like Alleyn’s and Troy’s characters, too.

  8. Awesome A. I had forgotten that I signed up for it but I’m going to work on my post today. I’m going to be giving this author a try. Now, if only I could read faster.

  9. I love Alleyn. I discovered him and the Marsh books early on–30 years ago (yikes! Can’t believe it’s that long…). My favorite is Death in a White Tie. Great start Margot!

  10. Gad, there’s so much I don’t know about crime fiction. I could totally concentrate on this one type of book and still never read everything I wanted to. Since I am a very eclectic reader, I have never read any of Marsh’s work. I hereby resolve to correct that absence in my reading life quite soon.

    • Barbara – Oh, I know just what you mean!! I never, ever get the chance to read even half what I’d like to read. If only there were eighty hours in a day…..

  11. I have a feeling I’m going to add a lot of new books to my TBR list during this crime fiction event. I need 80 hours in my days too.

  12. Sorry for the late comment – busy day yesterday not in a good way. Great topic for the letter A, I loved this chracter when I read all Ngaio Marsh’s books in my 20s. Thanks for the nice memories!

    • Maxine – Thank You 🙂 – glad you enjoyed the post. I’m sorry to hear you had One Of Those Days; I hope things ease up. And yes, Roderick Alleyn is one of those well-drawn characters; it’s hard not to like him.

  13. J.L. Campbell

    Hi, Margot,
    Haven’t read anything by Marsh. Alleyn sounds like a fascinating character.

    • J.L. – Alleyn really is an interesting character. I think Marsh developed him well and gave him a believable and intriguing personality. I like the wit in these novels, too.

      • I like this post. I find it easier to follow an analysis of ONE character [and his adventures/novels he is in] then follow a theme through the example of several books!

        Fact is, I LOVE analyzing characters. I like what you did here! 🙂

        • I like thinking about just one character at a time too sometimes. That’s especially true with characters such as Roderick Alleyn, who “stars” in a long-running series. He evolves, and if one focuses on that character one can see how that happens. Thanks for the kind words 🙂

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