As the brief foreword warns, we will know the identity of the murderer early on. Or do we?
The scene is set. Actors play out their roles in The Rat and the Beaver on the London stage, but behind the scenes, they have hidden agendas. In front of a live audience, including Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a shot rings out and an actor falls dead. Everything has gone according to the script, only the actor who was shot is very dead indeed.
Alleyn, a guest of journalist Nigel Bathgate, quickly realizes what has occurred and takes charge of the scene. Handsome leading actor Felix Gardener fired the gun that killed Arthur Surbonardier in front of hundreds of spectators. Both men were rivals in love for the lovely Stephanie Vaughan. Alleyn will question Felix, Stephanie, and the other actors and crew. Is the murderer the very obvious Felix, who pulled the trigger, or someone else behind the scenes pulling the strings of the marionettes on stage?
Alleyn will need to pull back the facade of actors playing roles—onstage and off—to solve an ingenious murder. It turns out a lot of people had a motive to want Surbonardier dead. The victim tried unsuccessfully to blackmail his actor uncle, Jacob Saint, for the lead role in his uncle’s latest production; instead, he was given the fatal role of Beaver. Not only that, his uncle was in the audience that night.
Then there are Surbonardier’s fellow actors. Janet Emerald was oveheard to remark she could kill Surbonardier. She also happens to be dating the victim’s uncle. There’s the shell-shocked Props who created the “blanks” for the gun. He and “Ole Bill ‘e ‘ated Mr. Surbonadier. For why? Because Mr. Surbonardier ‘e was a-mucking around Trixie.” Trixie Beadle happens to be Miss Vaughan’s dresser, and her father Bill Beadle was dresser for Mr. Gardener.
Much of the case hinges on who, how, and when the fake bullets were switched with real ones. The stage manager Mr. Simpson swears he put the correct fakes in with the gun just prior to lights out for the final act. The victim himself is the one who loads the gun in full view ot the audience. However, there is a brief window of about four minutes in which someone might have made the switch.
Inspector Alleyn is an intriguing character with a nearly prescient knowledge of the case. It’s not entirely clear when exactly he knew whodunnit, but he clearly knew well before the unmasking. Playing Watson to Alleyn’s Holmes, is journalist Nigel Bathgate. Nigel serves as stenographer during many of Alleyn’s interrogations and is involved in some of the interplay between the characters. Based on the foreword, it is Nigel who has written the account of the case we read.
The story iteself is engaing primarily for the mystery. The characters are a bit harder to grasp. Lines like “such was the habit of the stage, he sat down rather stagily” and “In all the ‘bad men’ parts he had played. Surbonadier had never looked quite so evil as he did at that moment” raise questions about how we should view such characters. With numerous actors as characters, many of them feel “called upon to use all professional and personal savoir-faire” and play their “part” as if real life were one big stage. This, unfortunately, makes them seem more two dimensional.
Alleyn, however, is able to see this characters as more than a role, telling one “you are not the silly, bewildered little thing you pretend to be.” And a few of the characters do transcend the “staginess” of their personas, especially by the end of the book. Perhaps it’s the author’s perception of actors that contributes to this protrayal or a flaw of being an early work. In either case, there is promise of deeper characterization.
Enter the Murderer (1935) is the second book featuring Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Marsh—often considered one of the queens of mysery alongside Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers—wrote 32 mysteries between 1934 and 1982. She was often inspired by her other life’s passions, art and the theatre. Elements of this particular book would later appear in Alleyn’s 19th case, Off With His Head.