I've left myself in the interesting position of trying to review, at a distance of several weeks, two country house mysteries, both of them the first in the author's series. The one in question here is the first Roderick Alleyn mystery; the other, "The Crime at Black Dudley" by Margery Allingham, the first Campion mystery. Although the two books are remarkably similar - both feature daggers, a game in the dark, and a mysterious and threatening foreigner, for instance - what stands out for me is how dissimilar Campion and Alleyn already are.
This is the more remarkable in that they both, like their brother Wimsey, are clearly descended from the same progenitor, the Scarlet Pimpernel. They are all aristocrats in disguise, whose deep and serious purposes are concealed by silliness. It is already clear from these first novels that while Campion's silliness is to be a thick and heavy cover, to the point where most of his acquaintance question his stability, Alleyn's forays into bad jokes and slightly unprofessional behaviour arise from deep unease within his real character, which finds the business of crime repugnant, and the business of crime detection occasionally disturbing and upsetting. It is my impression, based on reading subsequent novels (many of them in the far distant past) that while Campion's silly-fool cover is maintained, with only the occasional glimpse behind the curtain, Alleyn's silliness is almost entirely dropped, especially when he takes on the new character of lover. This is appropriate, given that he is, from the first, present in his professional capacity as a policeman, unlike Wimsey and Campion, who are freelance amateurs.
In this book, despite a well-developed - in fact, rather over-dramatically developed - sub-plot involving Russian conspirators and a little bit of torture for Alleyn' sidekick, Nigel Bathgate, the murder of Bathgate's cousin, Charles Rankin, turns out to have the oldest motive of all. I'll say no more than that, except that Alleyn stages a good reveal, involving, of all things, sliding down a banister (no, he does not compromise his own dignity!)
Based on the evidence of covers, Ngaio Marsh's mysteries appear to have been recently re-released, which may explain not only why they're all readily available on my e-library, but also why this one was so heavily wait-listed.
I enjoyed this very much.