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Opening Night (1951)

by Ngaio Marsh

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Roderick Alleyn (16)

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716823,799 (3.78)40
Dreams of stardom had lured Martyn Tarne from faraway New Zealand to make the dreary, soul-destroying round of West End agents and managers in search of work. The Vulcan Theatre had been her last forlorn hope, and now, driven by sheer necessity, she was glad to accept the humble job of dresser to its leading lady. And then came the eagerly awaited Opening Night. To Martyn the night brought a strange turn of the wheel of fortunebut to one distinguished member of the cast it was to bring sudden and unforeseen death."… (more)
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Night at the Vulcan (Opening Night) - Ngaio Marsh
Ngaio Marsh was known as one of the "Queens of Crime". She wrote 32 detective novels during the period 1934-1982 and Night at the Vulcan published in 1951 was number 17 and so just over halfway through the oeuvre. All the novels feature Inspector Roderick Alleyn a gentleman detective who works for the Metropolitan Police (London). Marsh's great passion was the theatre and all the action in this novel takes place in the Vulcan a refurbished London theatre that had suffered a tragedy some time before.

The time scale is fairly tight: all the action takes place over a three day period and starts with Martyn Tarne arriving at the theatre looking for work three days before the opening of a new play. She is employed as a dresser to the leading lady Helena Hamilton who is married to Clark Bennington who is on the skids, but has a part in the play. It is not until halfway through the novel that Inspector Allen and his team arrive after Clark Bennington appears to have committed suicide by gassing himself. The first half of the novel is therefore taken up with the workings of the theatre and Marsh creates this little world of actors and their staff preparing for the opening night. It is also a world that appears rather quaint being set in 1950 with its gas fires and its sightings of London buses through the windows of the theatre. Inspector Alleyn is politeness personified and his only role in the drama is the solving of the crime. The whole thing is a bit like a locked room mystery, which in the end is nicely worked out

I enjoyed the claustrophobic atmosphere of the theatre that Marsh has created and her characters were lively enough to keep me happily reading along to the end to discover the solution to the mystery. 3.5 stars. ( )
1 vote baswood | Nov 3, 2020 |
An unsatisfactory mystery with an equally unsatisfactory romance subplot.
A young woman emigrates to England, eager for a career in the theater. Down to a few coins, she miraculously comes across The Vulcan Theatre, which is in desperate need of a dresser. One thing leads to another in a most improbable set of coincidences, and the murder mystery is on.
Not Marsh’s best effort. ( )
  bohemima | Aug 5, 2018 |
Marsh's novels about the theatre are overwrought and histrionic. It seems weird that she could write in this vein about a milieu and subject with which she was so familiar. One of the actors rapes his wife, and the teenage protagonist deflects the sexual overtures of the night watchman at the theatre. All of this is somewhat obliquely or ambiguously described, but no intelligent adult could miss it. ( )
  themulhern | Apr 11, 2014 |
Down-on-her-luck Martyn Tarne (yes, "Martyn" is a female name, which threw me off a bit until I figured it out) is applying for theatre work in England, having recently arrived from New Zealand. She's down to two shillings and a few-odd pence and is seriously considering sleeping in a homeless shelter for the night. However, luck is upon her when she arrives at the Vulcan Theatre: the dresser for the noted Helena Hamilton has been taken ill, so Martyn steps into the breach. But the theatre has a bit of a gloomy past: five years previously, someone was killed by the gas fire in the dressing room. The actors, being a superstitious lot, don't talk much about it. Imagine then how much it rattles them when one of their number appears to have committed suicide in much the same manner as the previous death. Or is it really suicide...?

This is a slow-burn book with a slightly rushed ending. The slow burn is at least diverting: Marsh, being a playwright, knows all about actors' foibles and quirks and is adept at describing the atmosphere of a theatre in different stages of a production. Anyone who has worked in theatre will recognize themselves at some point in the story (for me, I definitely remembered the nervous thrill of opening night and how it all feels slightly unreal). Once the death occurs, Alleyn and the troops come in and simply talk their way to a solution, which seemed a bit anticlimactic. So if you're planning to read this I would say the characters are a bigger draw than the actual plot. ( )
2 vote rabbitprincess | Apr 23, 2012 |
Martyn Tarne, a young actress from New Zealand, arrives in England with no money and no immediate job prospects. After a fortnight of fruitless job-hunting, she arrives late for the auditions at the Vulcan Theatre - but not too late to overhear the leading lady's dresser is ill. It is not the sort of theatre work Martyn wants, but she's exhausted and desperate - and so, despite her lack of appropriate references, she applies.
The opening night of a new play is just days away, and relationships between some members of the cast and crew are strained. As an unlikely dresser, Martyn attracts a certain amount of attention, not all of it welcome.

This is a murder mystery, although considerable time passes before the murder occurs and Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn arrives on the scene. It is not one of Marsh's better mysteries: the revelation lacks dramatic surprise and the denouncement has never struck me as being clever. The investigation is brief, and does not really even provide insight into 1950s police-methods - at one point, Alleyn turns to a young constable and says "[What I just did] was an almost flawless example of how an investigating officer is not meant to behave. You will be good enough to forget it."
And unlike some mysteries, where the romantic subplot can be half the reason for reading the book, Opening Night's romance is neither entertaining nor intelligent; in fact, I wish it was absent from the story entirely.

Nevertheless, Opening Night is one of the Ngaio Marsh mysteries I like to reread in its entirety. It mightn't be a great mystery, but it's a very interesting portrayal of a theatre approaching opening night. Marsh does a wonderful job of conveying the physical space of the theatre, the different jobs and people involved in a show, and the potential tensions between them - as well as the intentions of the play itself.
I like Martyn. I like the way her wishful thinking is challenged - she discovers it's one thing to daydream about getting a role on short notice, and another to hope for the misfortune of someone she knows so that she herself may have a chance. I love how Marsh captures Martyn's exhaustion throughout the novel - there's something remarkably evocative about it, and it makes Martyn easy to sympathise with.

It's disappointing that in Opening Night Marsh was unable to write a good mystery about the theatre, but that does not mean the novel is without any redeeming qualities. ( )
  Herenya | Feb 1, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ngaio Marshprimary authorall editionscalculated
Saxon, JamesNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To The Management and Company of The New Zealand Student Players of 1949 in love and gratitude
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As she turned into Carpet Street the girl wondered at her own obstinacy.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Dreams of stardom had lured Martyn Tarne from faraway New Zealand to make the dreary, soul-destroying round of West End agents and managers in search of work. The Vulcan Theatre had been her last forlorn hope, and now, driven by sheer necessity, she was glad to accept the humble job of dresser to its leading lady. And then came the eagerly awaited Opening Night. To Martyn the night brought a strange turn of the wheel of fortunebut to one distinguished member of the cast it was to bring sudden and unforeseen death."

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