Roderick Alleyn

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Roderick Alleyn is a fictional character who first appeared in 1934.[1] He is the policeman hero of the 32 detective novels of Ngaio Marsh. Marsh and her gentleman detective belong firmly in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, although the last Alleyn novel, Light Thickens, was published as late as 1982.

Marsh mentions in an introduction that she named her detective Alleyn after Alleyn's School, where her father had been a pupil.

Background and Early Life[edit]

Roderick Alleyn is a gentleman detective, whose family and educational background may be deduced from comments in the novels. In brief, Alleyn was apparently born around 1892-1894, graduated from Oxford around 1915, served in the army for three years in World War I, then spent a year (1919–1920) in the British Foreign Service. He finally joined the Metropolitan Police as a constable in about 1920 or 1921.

Marsh's 32 novels form a chronological series that follows Alleyn's detective career. When the series opens (A Man Lay Dead, 1934), Alleyn is aged about 40 and is already a Detective Chief-Inspector in the CID at Scotland Yard. As the series progresses, Alleyn marries and has a son, and eventually rises to the rank of Chief Superintendent.

Family background[edit]

Throughout the novels, Alleyn is clearly a member of the gentry. He is the younger brother of a baronet, and was raised in Buckinghamshire where his mother, Lady Alleyn, continued to live. Lady Alleyn is unseen until the sixth novel, Artists in Crime (1938). In Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) Alleyn states that his mother's maiden name was Blandish.

From the beginning of the series, Alleyn's father is dead: his older brother, Sir George Alleyn, is already enjoying the baronetcy. Their late father, also named George (Death in a White Tie, 1938) implicitly had at least one brother (Alleyn's paternal uncle), because the first novel (A Man Lay Dead, 1934) mentions a cousin, Christina Alleyn, who remains an unseen character. Christina is a chemist who trained at Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1934, Christina Alleyn is in her mid-twenties.

Alleyn is on tolerably good terms with his older brother, Sir George Alleyn, the current baronet, who throughout most of the series is an unseen character. In Artists in Crime (1938), their mother indicates that Sir George is more conventional and less intelligent than his detective younger brother. The novel Death in a White Tie features Sarah Alleyn, a daughter of Sir George, and mentions that Sir George's wife (Alleyn's sister-in-law) is named Grace and that the elder Lady Alleyn is called Helena (at least, she is addressed as such by Lady Lorrimer). Like his younger brother, Sir George entered the Foreign Service: Death in a White Tie implies that Sir George is the Governor of Fiji in the late 1930s, as he writes to Alleyn from Government House in Suva. In the much later novel, When in Rome (1970), Alleyn remarks that his older brother was once the British Ambassador there. Sir George finally appears in person, but only briefly, at an embassy function in Black As He's Painted (1974).

In the earliest five novels, Alleyn is single—and quite attracted to actresses, as described in both Enter a Murderer (1935) and Vintage Murder (1937). Subsequently, in Artists in Crime (1938), Alleyn meets Agatha Troy whom he later marries. Troy is a famous painter, particularly of portraits, and features in many later novels. They have one son, Ricky; Ricky plays major roles as a child in Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954) and as a young adult in Last Ditch (1977).

The 32 Alleyn Novels[edit]

The following descriptions are taken with acknowledgment from the rear cover blurbs on the HarperCollins Diamond Anniversary Collection of 2009.

In addition, three Alleyn stories are contained in the short story collection Death on the Air and Other Stories, first published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers in 1995. The three Alleyn stories are:

The collection, besides seven non-Alleyn stories, also includes two "biographical" essays written by Ngaio Marsh: Roderick Alleyn and Portrait of Troy.

Birth, education and early career[edit]

Alleyn was reportedly educated at Eton and Oxford, and worked in the British Foreign Service for a year (1919–1920) before joining the Metropolitan Police. A much later novel, Scales of Justice (1955), gives sketchy details of this period in Alleyn's life. The reasons for the switch in careers are never made explicit.

Early in his police career, Alleyn wrote a textbook that became widely admired: Principles and Practice of Criminal Investigations, by Roderick Alleyn, M.A. (Oxon), C.I.D. (Sable and Murgatroyd, 21s), which is mentioned in a footnote to Chapter 6 of Vintage Murder (1937).

In the first few novels, Alleyn is in his early forties. In the first, A Man Lay Dead (1934), Nigel Bathgate (Alleyn's future Watson) is clearly stated to be twenty-five, and Alleyn is much older, judging by the tone of his remarks to Bathgate. In the second, Enter a Murderer (1935), there is a minor inconsistency, in that Bathgate appears to be slightly younger than before. Bathgate says that he has been working as a journalist for only 15 months, ever since he 'came down' (that is, graduated) from Trinity College, Cambridge. However, Alleyn comments that it is almost 20 years since he (Alleyn) came down from Oxford. Assuming both gentlemen graduated with a typical three-year Oxbridge degree at around age 21, then in 1934 or 1935 Bathgate is about 22 or 23 and Alleyn is about 20 years older, indicating his birth was around 1893 or 1894.

The fifth novel, Vintage Murder (1937), is explicitly set in New Zealand in June 1936—according to an epilogue dated September 1936 and set three months after the novel's action. In Chapter 16, Alleyn states his age, while speaking to a teenager: 'Rude you think? I'm twenty-five years older than you. Old gentlemen of forty-two are allowed to be impertinent. Especially when they are policemen.'

Vintage Murder (1937) also indicates Alleyn spent three years in the army after graduating, presumably during World War I. Nowhere in the series are details of this military service ever given. Immediately after the army, he spent a year in the British Foreign Service.

The sixth novel, Artists in Crime (1938), rapidly follows the action of Vintage Murder (that is, occurs in late 1936), and contains letters between Lady Alleyn and her younger son during his return to England. These show that Alleyn's mother turns 65 in 1936, and that Alleyn is about 20 years younger. The same correspondence shows that Lady Alleyn's birthday is on the seventh of September, and that Alleyn's (forty-third) birthday follows soon after. Hence, from information in the fifth and sixth novels, Alleyn was probably born in September or October, 1893.

It is clear that later novels take some liberties with Alleyn's age. In "Black as He's Painted" (1974), Alleyn is clearly not 80 years old, as he would have to be if his birth was in 1893. The setting of the novel is identified as being contemporary with its writing, i.e. the early 1970s, and while Alleyn is clearly a senior member of CID, he is still relatively young ad fit enough to be "sprinting" down alleyways after perpetrators.

Alleyn as a gentleman detective[edit]

Main article: Gentleman detective

The gentleman detective has long been a staple of British crime fiction, particularly in novels from the Golden Age.

One obvious comparison with Roderick Alleyn is the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey. Alleyn's family background resembles the relationships created by Dorothy Sayers for her fictional Lord Peter Wimsey (born 1890). Like Alleyn, Wimsey has a titled older brother, who however is far more grand—he's a duke. Like Alleyn, Lord Peter's brother is less intelligent and more conventional than his more famous younger sibling. Alleyn's mother, Lady Alleyn, closely resembles in manner the Dowager Duchess of Denver, Wimsey's mother. Both ladies are affable and intelligent, and strongly support (and perhaps prefer) their younger sons. One marked difference between the fictional biographies of Alleyn and Wimsey, who are about the same age, is in their military service during World War I. Alleyn's army service is glossed over and never discussed, whereas Wimsey's distinguished service on the Western Front has mentally scarred him for life. Wimsey and Alleyn share a fondness in dialogue for contemporary upper-class humor, especially slang and cant humor, although Wimsey leans more towards "bright young things" cant phrases, whilst Alleyn uses much police and cockney slang and bards his conversation with Hamlet allusions.

Like Alleyn, at least two of Agatha Christie's detectives clearly belong in the gentry. Her elderly spinster, Miss Marple, is not from the aristocracy but is quite at home amongst them, while the diminutive Mr. Satterthwaite (in The Mysterious Mr. Quin [1930] and Three Act Tragedy [1934]) has a similar background and is wealthy besides. Her most famous detective character, Hercule Poirot, is a foreigner, and is thus outside the English class system (of which Poirot takes advantage).

Two later and widely known gentleman detectives may also be compared to Alleyn. These are Adam Dalgliesh, created by P. D. James, and Inspector Morse, created by Colin Dexter. Like Alleyn, Dalgliesh flourishes in the Metropolitan Police despite being definitely gentry, but is a recluse and a poet. However, Morse works in Oxford and is (or was) upwardly mobile: he apparently won a scholarship to Oxford but subsequently failed. Like Alleyn and Wimsey, Morse served in the British army before joining the police.


Several of the Roderick Alleyn novels have been adapted for television, though none as yet for mainstream cinema release. Four novels were adapted for New Zealand television in 1977 under the series title Ngaio Marsh Theatre, with Alleyn played by George Baker.[3] Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool and Vintage Murder are set in New Zealand, while Opening Night is set in London. The theme of Opening Night involves a New Zealand actress with a startling resemblance to the lead actor.

Nine novels with British settings were adapted for British television as The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries. In the pilot, Artists in Crime (1990), Alleyn was played by Simon Williams, and then by Patrick Malahide in eight more tales (1993–94): A Man Lay Dead, The Nursing Home Murder, Final Curtain (the second TV adaptation), Death at the Bar, Death in a White Tie, Hand in Glove, Dead Water and Scales of Justice.

A BBC radio adaptation was made starring Jeremy Clyde as Alleyn. Four stories were recorded between 2001 and 2006; A Man Lay Dead (2001), A Surfeit of Lampreys (2001), When in Rome (2003), and Opening Night (2006)

DVD release[edit]

The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries (the 1990s British productions) are available on Region Two DVD as a four disc pack.


  1. ^ Marsh, Ngaio (1934). A man lay dead. Great Britain: Collins. ISBN 9780006155911. 
  2. ^ Gibbs, Rowan; Richard Williams (1990). Ngaio Marsh: a bibliography of English language publications in hardback and paperback with a guide to the value of the first editions. Dragonby Press. 
  3. ^ "Ngaio Marsh Theatre". NZ On Screen. Retrieved 5 December 2013. 

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