Appearing before the magistrate was an occupational hazard for many of those from whom Francis Grose garnered the words that make up his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1781). The judge was known as a fortune teller because he “told every prisoner his fortune, lot, or doom”. To go before the fortune teller was to stand trial at the assizes. Variants were to go before the lambskin men or a conjurer.
A visit in front of the judge may result in a Friday face, a term defined as “a dismal countenance”, so called because as well as being the traditional day of abstinence, after the restoration of the monarchy, King Charles II issued a proclamation “prohibiting all publicans from dressing any suppers on a Friday”.
A freeholder was a man “whose wife accompanies him to the ale-house” where he may have felt obliged to buy her a French cream, the slang for brandy, so called, says Grose, because old dowagers and tabbies used to put it in their tea. If the bill for his fare took him by surprise, he may be tempted to take French leave, defined as “to go off without taking leave of the company; a saying frequently applied to persons who have run away from their creditors”.
A difficult day may have been made worse if he found himself Frenchified, “infected with the venereal disease”. Safer, perhaps, to be a fumbler, “an old or impotent man”.
Published in 1935 this is Marsh’s second detective novel and features Detective Inspector Alleyn and his well-connected, journalist sidekick, Nigel Bathgate. The book opens with an unpleasant argument between the theatrical impresario, Joseph Saint, and his nephew and lead actor, Arthur Soubonadier. Soubonadier then has a row with his love interest and leading lady, Surbonadier. We quickly get an insight into his character and it is no surprise that he is killed. There are several in the cast with motive enough to want to put an end to him.
It is the manner of Soubonadier’s ending that makes the story. In front of an audience at a performance of the play, The Rat and the Beaver, including Alleyn and Bathgate, he is shot dead, the dummy bullets in the gun seemingly replaced with live ones. A blackout at the start of the final act gave the murderer the opportunity to effect the switch and carry out the deed. Who did it?
Marsh was an accomplished theatre director, her speciality was Shakespearean drama, and she draws on her wealth of knowledge of the theatre to create the atmosphere – you can almost smell the greasepaint – and takes delight in detailing the foibles, characteristics and traits of the acting profession, their phobias, neuroses and petty jealousies. That is fine and adds to the colour and authentic feel of the book, but, frankly, the crime set up was cliched even for the time it was written.
I am struggling to get into Ngaio Marsh. Her early works seem to me as though she has just taken delivery of a new car and is slowly trying out the gears, timidly depressing the accelerator to see how fast and far it will go. One of my problems with the book is the role of Bathgate. He is like a puppy dog, almost always at Alleyn’s side, a role that is barely believable in a police investigation, adding barely anything to the story other than being a sort of everyman who is struggling to make sense of the clues. Alleyn’s paid sidemen, Messrs Fox and the fingerprint man, Bailey, barely get a look in, even though they have the professional skills and acumen to make a significant contribution to the investigation. Alleyn also gets emotionally entangled in the case, which is very much a 1930s thing. There is too much cliché for my taste.
If you are wanting to be pedantic, the story is not very well plotted, with loose ends, particularly in respect of the blackmail. When it rears its head, it seems to be a big deal and will play a key part in the motivation for the murder but, at the end, it just seems to be left hanging in the air. There are red herrings galore and when the culprit is finally unmasked, the solution is neat enough, but I felt had it been in more experienced hands, it would have been a much better book.
On the plus side, Marsh keeps the suspense going right up to the last minute, the culprit revealed just before the end, in almost, but not quite classic last page style. Her characterisation is good, and her writing is crisp, clear and she is capable of turning out some memorable sentences and passages. I haven’t seen anything in her early works that suggest she will rival the major female crime writers, as she eventually does, but I will continue to read the series with interest.
Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple…the roll call of fictional detectives is impressive but missing, at least these days, from the board of honour is Dr John Thorndyke, R Austin Freeman’s principal creation. In his day he was popular with readers and there were even some that thought he rivalled Holmes rather than simply owing his existence to Freeman’s desire to emulate Conan Doyle. Part of the problem is that Doyle is the better writer, more impressionistic and more fun to read, whereas Freeman, a medic himself, is more concerned with the logic and science behind the crimes and the conclusions that Thorndyke draws, a preoccupation which often means that his stories are duller in comparison and sometimes hard-going.
As a pure detective, though, and to some this may be a contentious point, Thorndyke is the superior, his methodology rooted in a deep understanding of science and a careful consideration and dissection of the facts that he unearths. Holmes has a flightier approach, using intuition and what he calls inductive reasoning. He sometimes gets his facts wrong and has to resort to advertising to make headway, something Thorndyke rarely, if ever, has to resort to. Devoid of eccentricities and dubious habits, Thorndyke’s sole attraction is his stone-cold logic. He is a colder fish and if you had a choice between a story involving Holmes or Thorndyke, for entertainment and the quality of the writing, most would plump for Holmes.
We ignore Thorndyke at our peril, though, as the stories, as examples of the detective’s methodology, are worth reading today, if only to recall that in the days without DNA testing a knowledge of what our politicians would call “thescience” could take you a long way. Published in 1923 Dr Thorndyke’s Casebook is a collection of seven short stories, narrated to us by Thorndyke’s bagman, Jervis. Rather like Watson, Jervis, although a medic, is there to represent the everyman whose initial bafflement and then wonder as his detective friend unravels the mystery are designed to enhance the reader’s respect for the maestro.
Thorndyke, a lecturer in medical jurisprudence, has a consultative practice and members of the public are happy to engage him, rather like Holmes, either in place of the police, or in conjunction with the police, to crack a seemingly impenetrable problem. Sometimes he is called in by the police to add his considerable intellectual heft to the effort.
Three of the cases involve murder. My favourite was The Funeral Pyre where a body in a hayrick is identified by its false teeth and dental patterns on clay pipes go some way to unmasking the culprit. The Case of the White Footprints, the opening story, relies upon the unmasking of a murderer who lacks any little toes. Thorndyke, once he realises that this infirmity is a symptom of a rare disease, ainhum, is able to finger the culprit. The weakest of the trio of murders is The New Jersey Sphinx where the murderer, who has a thyroid problem, rushes around trying to incriminate and impersonate others.
The other four involve theft. The best of the quartet and the best known, The Blue Scarab, involves the loss of a jewel which holds the key to a buried treasure. The theft of a will features in The Touchstone, a necklace in A Fisher of Men and the title of The Stolen Ingots is self-explanatory. Thorndyke’s knowledge of the specific gravity of metals helps him solve the mystery.
If you haven’t tried Freeman, his short stories are a more palatable, digestible entrée to his craft than his novels.