A review of Scales of Justice by Ngaio Marsh – 230513
I have struggled at times to see why Ngaio Marsh has earned the reputation as a crime writer that she has but Scales of Justice, the eighteenth in her Roderick Alleyn series and originally published in 1955, is really rather good. It plunders some of the more hackneyed themes of the genre, a picturesque English village, beautiful on the outside but a seething pit of emotions on the inside, a close knit community of the upper classes, a guilty secret or two and something which will rip the cosy community apart.
To this Marsh brings her own stamp, a brutal murder inflicted by a combination of a piece of sporting equipment and the ferrule of a leisure item. She is nothing if not inventive in the way her victims die. This one is Colonel Cartarette who was fishing for trout by the local stream and he had the remains of the river’s largest trout and the source of much (un)healthy rivalry amongst the piscatorial types of the village of Swevenings by his side.
Days earlier, the head of another local family, Sir Harold Lacklander, had on his death bed entrusted Cartarette with overseeing the publication of his memoirs. The rest of the Lacklanders seem less than keen for the memoirs to see the light of day. Was there some revelation in Chapter Seven that would ruin reputations, put another interpretation upon a tragic wartime suicide, and shake the community apart? Were the memoirs the reason that Cartarette was killed?
The early part of the book is delightful, Marsh using Nurse Kettle’s slow peregrination around the village to introduce her principal characters, all eccentric in their own ways. I particularly liked Octavius Danberry-Phinn who lives alone with his cats who have extraordinary names including the delightful Edie Puss. His son, Ludovic, served under Sir Harold in the army and was driven to commit suicide when allegations of collaboration with the Germans emerged.
Another wonderful character is the alcoholic Commander Syce who recklessly practices with his bow and arrows when three sheets to the wind and feigns attacks of lumbago to receive regular visits from the nurse. He too has wartime links with the Lacklander and George Cartarette, to whom he inadvertently introduced Kitty who was to become George’s second wife.
Not only are the families neighbours but they are linked through their military service. To add to the web of connections, Alleyn also served under Lacklander and was there when the Danberry-Phinn scandal blew up. He was specifically called in by Lady Lacklander to solve her husband’s murder because he was one of them. Surprisingly, Scotland Yard agree to put him on the case.
Alleyn with the dutiful Fox in tow works his way through the case, taking a rather unexpected interest in the fish that was by Cartarette’s side and one of Phinn’s cats that seemed from the smell emanating from its mouth to have enjoyed a good meal. There is a touch of the Freeman Wills Crofts as Alleyn works out how the killer blow was administered and once that has been achieved and he understands the significance of fish scales, which allows Marsh to make a clever pun out of the book’s title, the identity of the culprit amongst the several people who were near the river at the time in question becomes clearer.
There is much humour in the book and there are enough red herrings, or should that be trout, to keep the armchair sleuth on their toes. Despite being written in the mid-1950s there is a surprisingly pre-war feel about the story, a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness for a world now lost. One of her better books.