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Death of a Fool

(Roderick Alleyn #19)

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  1,674 ratings  ·  163 reviews
A ritual dance becomes a murderous mambo...
At the winter solstice, South Mardian's swordsmen weave their blades in an ancient ritual dance. But for one of them, the excitement proves too heady, and his decapitiation turns the fertility rite into a pageant of death. Now Inspector Roderick Alleyn must penetrate not only the mysteries of folklore, but the secrets and sins of
Paperback, 288 pages
Published February 15th 1999 by Minotaur Books (first published January 1st 1957)
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Average rating 3.73  · 
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Nandakishore Varma
I am in the midst of a job change, therefore, not feeling up to reading anything heavy. Fortunately, I was able to pick up a few mysteries (the old-fashioned English ones where the murder takes place at a country mansion and everyone including the police treat it as a sort of intellectual puzzle, rather than the gory and gritty American police procedurals) to help me through this period.

Ngaio Marsh is one of those elderly English lady writers (well, she's a New Zealander, but English in spirit)
Oct 20, 2015 rated it it was ok

In this 19th book in the 'Roderick Alleyn' series, the British detective investigates the death of a folk dancer. The book can be read as a standalone.


In the English village of South Mardian the winter solstice is marked by a complex ritual dance performed solely by men. This year, not long after WW II, the major participants in the dance are the local smithy and his four sons - who have a long ancestry in the area - a village doctor, a parson's son/lawyer, and a former army officer.

The sto
May 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ngaio-marsh
An entertaining read. Morris dancing with a twist!

Annually in the depths of winter in a remote English village the Dance of the five sons is performed on Sword Wednesday during the Winter Solstice. It has been performed for hundreds of years. The key characters in the dance are "The Fool", "The Hobbyhorse" "and "The teaser" (called "Betty").

Mrs. Bunz, an eccentric German folklorist turns up at Mardian Castle wanting to witness the secretive annual folk dance. She is given short thrift by 94 year
Jul 03, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the nineteenth, Roderick Alleyn novel, in what is a slightly infuriating series. If any author could be called inconsistent – often brilliant, but too often banal, then Marsh is that author. Some of her mysteries are fantastic and there have been many that I have really enjoyed. However, this book, published in 1957, feels to be almost written by rote.

We have a small village, a winter solstice, and – bizarrely – morris dancing. Add a stereotypical German folk specialist, a pair of lover
Jan 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: mystery, detective
My favourite Ngaio Marsh story is the one that does not involve the theatre or New Zealand. Death of a Fool is set in a snowy English village holding out against the 20th century. It could easily be silly, but Ngaio Marsh is far too good a writer to slip into that error.

The story has a village smithy, a mediæval folk dance, eccentric gentry, a village natural, and an artsy German folklorist doing a wonderful imitation of the modern obsession with ethnicity. I am in awe of a New Zealander who co
Susan in NC
Just ok (2 stars on my personal scale). I listened to this one on Audible and although Nadia May is usually a favorite narrator, the rural accents of some characters were almost unintelligible and the constant descriptions of folk dances didn’t make sense. I don’t know if reading the book would’ve helped me to make sense or be more interested!

I found it more interesting once the murder occurred during a performance of a folk dance, and Inspector Alleyn and crew arrived to investigate. Then i5 be
Jan 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: novel, mystery
Ngaio Marsh, in the second of her mysteries I have read, shows herself to be a master of human observation. Marsh combines that with the ability to describe her well drawn characters using humor and engaging them actions that hint at the psychology underneath.

The murder mystery is a perfect genre for someone able to portray the smallest ripples of emotion and perception. One of these characters is capable of murder. In this mystery she has her detective, Alleyn, say "Motive, I detest motive!" Of
Jlnpeacock Peacock
Dec 19, 2014 rated it really liked it
Part of the enjoyment of this book was not only the excellent descriptions but the historical information regarding some of the ancient English folk dances and traditions occurring around the Christmas seasoning. Marsh also presents material that would suggest that Shakespeare incorporated some of the folk themes in his "King Lear." Marsh's knowledge of theatre was also very helpful.
Marythios (AkaSusanne )
Set in 1950s Britain, an annual ritual dance held on the winter solstice. The winter solstice is nearing, and South Mardian is preparing for its local mummery play that the community has held on Sword Wednesday for centuries, passing along the music and dance.

Dame Alice Mardian is greatly displeased by the presence of an outsider, Mrs. Bunz, a folklore specialist, because the people of South Mardian want to keep things local. Dr. Otterly plays the fiddle for the dance, William Andersen, the loc
Jul 05, 2010 rated it did not like it
Shelves: mystery
At this point in my rereading of Marsh I realize that I am having trouble seeing the books as they were received when first written and published. This particular story bothered me particularly for a number of reasons:
First, Marsh's books continue to be painfully class ridden. Members of the gentry are well educated, speak standard English and either privately wealthy or hold down jobs as artists, lawyers or doctors. Members of the lower class are badly educated, speak painfully broad dialect an
Feb 20, 2017 rated it did not like it
I did feel obligated to read this book I had checked out, trying to give this author another opportunity to capture my admiration. The first stumbling block is the dialect of the blacksmith and family. The next major problem is the staging of ancient dance that is too complicated to explain. It seems to me that the play was the thing for Marsh, and for me the play and all the characters were annoying at best.
Fredrick Danysh
May 03, 2016 rated it liked it
Set in 1950s Britain, an annual ritual dance held on the winter solstice. When one of the principle participants is beheaded, Inspector Alleyn of Scotland Yard becomes involved as he unravels the mysteries of the eighteenth century ceremony.
Gillian Kevern
This was a reread. I remembered the basics, but not all the details. Actually, I was impressed what a strong impression some parts left, while other parts I remembered as being completely different.

A good Ngaio Marsh, but not her best.
Mar 07, 2020 rated it it was ok
My least favorite Marsh book so far. Just all indecipherable accents and unsympathetic characters with the backdrop of a cryptic occasion called a mummer. What is a mummer, you ask?

Good question. Marsh opens her book with a short forward blurb reading, "To anyone with the smallest knowledge of folklore it will be obvious that the Dance of the Five Sons is a purely imaginary synthesis combining in the most unlikely profusion the elements of several dances and mumming plays."

Well, crap. I don't ha
Mar 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
The winter solstice is nearing, and South Mardian is preparing for its local mummery play that the community has held on Sword Wednesday for centuries, passing along the music and dance orally for the Dance of the Five Sons in Death of a Fool by Ngaio Marsh. Dame Alice Mardian is greatly displeased by the presence of an outsider, Mrs. Bunz, a folklore specialist, because the people of South Mardian want to keep things local. As Dr. Otterly plays the fiddle for the dance, William Andersen, the lo ...more
Kiwi Carlisle
Sep 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Set just after World War II, Marsh represents a rural village in England that still hangs on to the ways of the past....the long ago past. For centuries the village of South Maridan has celebrated the winter solstice with a Wednesday Sword Dance. Outsiders are not generally welcomed to the festivities which features the "Dance of the Five Sons" and revolves around the death and resurrection of the father figure (the Fool), played by William Anderson or the Guiser as he's known--the local black s ...more
P.D.R. Lindsay
Feb 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites
Sigh, why can't I make the Goodreads website work so that the British version of the book is the one I can display.

'Off With His Head' is my version, a much better title too!

Marvellous plot this one, and a real puzzler when I read it first. The characters are a wondrous mix of the sweet and delightful, right up to the fantastic. You can tell, reading this, that Marsh was someone who loved the theatre. The plot reads like a play script, full of dramatic moments.

There are some lovely in-jokes, pun
1956, #19 Roderick Alleyn, CID, rural village of South Mardian; classic village cosy/police procedural. Novel also published as DEATH OF A FOOL in US 1957.

The Winter Solstice celebrations in the odd little village of South Mardian are ancient, very well-respected, and very private, seen by invitation only. But they become extremely public when the lead dancer gets his head cut off during the sword dance.

Absolutely perfect setting, tone, characterization and mood, with classic characterizations
Aug 17, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
When the Sword Dancer's mock beheading becomes horribly real, it is Superintendent Rodercik Alleyn who must discover who had the best motive for murder.

One of the reasons I like these old fashioned murder mysteries - aside from all the "proper Englishness" and class snobbery which is hilarious - is because the plots are properly comlex and minutely worked out. Everything is laid out before the reader so if they wanted to make notes and work it out themselves (if given enough facts) they
Jun 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: before-1999, 2019
One my favorite mysteries by Ngaio Marsh.
Cleopatra  Pullen
Well before I picked this book,I did so because although she’s widely acclaimed, she is not an author I’ve actually read which is shocking considering that I consider myself quite widely read in this genre having been a fan since discovering Maigret and Agatha Christie in my childhood. I have to confess on the whole I found this a difficult read which I will attempt to explain.

The setting of the early scene was really well done when we met Mrs Bunz a German woman with an academic interest in fol
Joey Brockert
Feb 02, 2018 rated it liked it
It is easy to see who gets killed in this story – the fool - but who did it?
This story takes place in the rural parts of England. There is a play dance that takes place every Wednesday after the winter solstice., This performance is old and is called a 'Morris dance. That name is derived from 'morisco' dance, which is an allusion to the Moors that did not leave Spain after the Christian conquest, and that is not right for this performance if the history dates back to Druids. There are five son
Feb 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 tim ...more
Carol Evans
Sep 14, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mystery
Death of a Fool takes place around the winter solstice. In South Mardian, a sword dance/fertility ritual/mummer play is performed every year, but this time, the fool (the father) is actually beheaded. I don't know anything about English folk dances, but the dance featured in Death of a Fool is interesting. Granted, it's a fictional dance, but the author tells us that she did use elements from a variety of traditional dances. Reading about the rehearsals, the performance, the costume and the hist ...more
Dec 22, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library, mystery
WKKPL | Too much detail in the wrong places, too much repetition. | I just didn't enjoy this very much. There was so much extra description of the dance, over and over, beforehand and during rehearsals and while it was happening and while it was being reprised--once was certainly necessary because of the nature of the murder, but this felt like word-padding. Then, as several writers of the time period were wont to do, Marsh kept having characters rehash the facts. I haven't forgotten the details ...more
Feb 26, 2020 rated it did not like it
Shelves: audiobooks
Oh my gosh. This one did not work at all. AT ALL. Villagers plan for an elaborate performance of a ritual dance. (IN BLACKFACE.) Villagers discuss who will perform which part in the ritual dance. Villagers perform said ritual dance. Someone is murdered during the ritual dance. Police ask each of the people to describe the ritual dance. Every single person explains the ritual dance. The police ask everyone to re-enact the ritual dance. Everyone discusses who will play which part in the re-enactme ...more
Jul 06, 2017 rated it liked it
When a country Morris dance (the dance of the five sons) goes awry, Alleyn is called in. One of the five sons of the local smith is a little weak in the head, and the others are constantly hushing him. The local garage owner wants to build a petrol station on the site of the backmith shop, and the five sons are all for it, but their father, who plays the Fool in the dance, is violently against it. A mild love interest is provided by the smith's granddaughter, whose mother (the sons' sister) "mar ...more
Candy Wood
At the beginning, the role of sensible female observer seems to be split between two characters: Mrs. Bünz, a middle-aged devotee of English folk customs, and Camilla Campion, a young actress-in-training whose mother came from the village but who is now an outsider. Camilla, though, is even more distracted by young love than most of Marsh’s other observer characters, and Mrs. B (not pronounced “Buns”) is more fanatical than sensible. The murder happens, as the title suggests it will, during a so ...more
DeAnna Knippling
Sep 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
English folk dancing...leads to MURDER.

Well, I had to say it. This is my first Ngaio Marsh and probably won't be my last. A solid mystery made up of enough moving parts that you might catch a piece or two and still not know how it was done. The opening was from the POV of a rather unpleasant character who is NOT the one to get killed later on, and I didn't care for it--it went on and on. But as soon as we were out of her head, the book became much more readable and fun. The plot revolves around
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Dame Ngaio Marsh, born Edith Ngaio Marsh, was a New Zealand crime writer and theatre director. There is some uncertainty over her birth date as her father neglected to register her birth until 1900, but she was born in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand.

Of all the "Great Ladies" of the English mystery's golden age, including Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh

Other books in the series

Roderick Alleyn (1 - 10 of 33 books)
  • A Man Lay Dead (Roderick Alleyn #1)
  • Enter a Murderer (Roderick Alleyn, #2)
  • The Nursing Home Murder (Roderick Alleyn, #3)
  • Death in Ecstasy (Roderick Alleyn, #4)
  • Vintage Murder (Roderick Alleyn, #5)
  • Artists in Crime (Roderick Alleyn #6)
  • Death in a White Tie (Roderick Alleyn, #7)
  • Overture to Death (Roderick Alleyn #8)
  • Death at the Bar (Roderick Alleyn, #9)
  • Death of a Peer (Roderick Alleyn #10)

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