Coming to England from New Zealand, mystery writer Ngaio Marsh was fascinated by the island’s quaint customs and rituals. Death of a Fool centers on the pre-Christian “Hobby Horse” dance-play, here depicted as the South Mardian Sword Dance. Marsh was very involved in theatre, and she shows us this Winter Solstice drama both behind the scenes and onstage (so to speak — it’s performed outdoors, around the ancient Mardian Stone, and rehearsed in a barn). Still practiced much as it was in pagan times, handed down through local families, the Sword Dance attracts the obsessively curious German-born fan Mrs. Anna Bunz to the Mardian family’s door. Through her eyes we learn the ancient ritual character by character, scene by scene. Once the Sword Dance inevitably claims a victim, Marsh’s series detective arrives to investigate: Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn (a professional police counterpart of his amateur contemporaries Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion).
Having gone to the Brontes’ village of Haworth partly to watch the Morris dancing, I very much enjoyed the performances (offstage and on) in Death of a Fool. Mrs. Bunz’s outsider’s view of ancient British customs was both comical and illuminating — she’s a bit like Hercule Poirot that way. My difficulty with the story is that understanding the eponymous murder depends on being able to picture clearly the layout of the Sword Dance, which I’m not so good at. I could follow the plot, but since I couldn’t envision the scene, I had little chance of guessing what happened and why.