Tag Archives: Ngaio Marsh

Scales Of Justice

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.

Three Sisters Flew Home

A review of Three Sisters Flew Home by Mary Fitt – 230419

Kathleen Freeman, who wrote under three pseudonyms including Mary Fitt, takes us into the leftfield world of crime and mystery fiction occupied by Gladys Mitchell with this novel, originally published in 1936 and reissued by Moonstone Press. Published two years before her first in her Superintendent Mallett series, it would be wrong to categorise it as a murder mystery. Yes, there is a murder, right at the end of the story, and yes, there is a little bit of whodunit and whydunit, if only amongst the suspects who are left to potentially carry the can, but it is more of a study in psychology, of jealousies, tensions, and vendettas.

It takes a little while to realise that Fitt is not going to deliver a conventional murder mystery. The usual suspects are all there; a gathering of people in a house for a New Year’s Eve party, a character who, as the story develops, is revealed to be despised if not hated by all that surround them, and a murder, the victim stabbed with a special dagger. Fitt, though, is much more concerned with building up an atmosphere, of suspense and tension, daring the reader to second guess less what is going to happen but more when and by whom. There is an ethereal, unworldly feel about the book, the sense that some of the characters are not really of this world.

In her day job Freeman was a distinguished Greek scholar and it is inevitable that some of her learning seeps into the book. As a former Classics scholar I did not find the references overtly obscure as some modern readers seem to have done, but it is clear that the story is heavily influenced by Greek tragedy, the sense that something awful is going to happen in accordance with a pre-determined plan that no human intervention can alter. Indeed, the characters are just the puppets of a greater force. The presence of three mysterious sisters who fly away at the end to leave the mere mortals to pick up the pieces is reminiscent of the Moirai, the Fates in Greek mythology who determined human destiny and the time allotted on this Earth.

The party is held by a society sculptress, Claribel, and she has scored something of a coup by inviting three mysterious young sisters, about whom and their earlier interaction with their hostess we learn more as the story develops. The elder two each have a valuable dagger, one of which Lucy gives to a fellow guest, Marcus Praed, who promptly loses it when Claribel throws it out of the window during the quarrel. Inevitably, it is this dagger that is the murder weapon.

The sisters’ presence is not the only unusual feature of the party. It emerges that all the male guests are lovers or former lovers of Claribel, and while her husband, Gilbert, seems to have come to terms with her association with the rugged explorer, Marcus Praed, his eyes are opened to his wife’s serial infidelities. Marcus Praed also learns, perhaps for the first time, that he is not the only string to Claribel’s bow. The atmosphere is full of tension with characters realising the truth with love lost and new alliances beginning to be developed.

A point of interest in the book, which Curtis Evans explains in more detail in his introduction, is the game of Murder!, a party game that was all the rage in the 1930s, a game I first encountered in Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dying. The game is so popular that it is played three times at Claribel’s party, and that it is played in darkness and involves the “murder” of a victim selected by lot suits the brooding sense of malevolent tension that Fitt is building up. That the murder is committed during the third game seems nothing if not fitting.

There is no attempt to dissemble the identities of the victim and the culprit and why the murder was committed. It is not that sort of book and is not the poorer for lacking what we anticipate in a book taxonomically condemned to be labelled as a work of crime and mystery. The book has its flaws, for sure, but it is the unconventionality of the approach coupled with Fitt’s beautiful if wordy style that sucks the reader in.

I enjoyed what is a refreshing approach to an even by 1936 a tired genre but recognise that it will not be for every crime afficionado.

Spinsters In Jeopardy

A review of Spinsters in Jeopardy by Ngaio Marsh – 230307

I still cannot make my mind up about Ngaio Marsh. She wrote some superb murder mysteries and was particularly inventive in the way that her victims met her end, but there are too many mediocre books in her canon. Spinsters in Jeopardy, which also goes by the title of The Bride of Death, originally published in 1953, falls fairly and squarely into the latter category.

It is entertaining enough, but it relies far too much on coincidence for my taste. The Alleyns are travelling en famille, including their precocious six-year-old son, Ricky, whose proficiency in French belies his tender years, for a holiday in France, partly as cover for series detective Roderick’s undercover mission in conjunction with the French police to penetrate a fiendish drug gang led by Mr Oberon who also dabble in spiritual rituals and outlandish sexual practices. They are travelling to see one of Agatha Troy’s distant relatives by the name of Garbel, whom they have never met and whom they mistakenly believe to be a man.

Garbel just happens to be working at the drug factory and is an intimate within Oberon’s circle. On the train journey, both Roderick and Agatha just happen to look out of the train window as it is about to enter a tunnel and see what they believe to be a man about to stab a woman in an adjacent chateau, Chevre d’Argent. On board the train is a spinster, Miss Truebody, who suffers a severe ruptured appendix and needs urgent medical attention. Of course, all the doctors in the vicinity are away at a conference and the only medic in the area is Dr Baradi, an associate of Oberon’s and staying at Chevre d’Argent. Alleyn nobly offers to accompany her, giving him a perfect excuse to penetrate the den of iniquity and even helps by being Baradi’s anaesthetist.

Alleyn’s cover is almost blown because amongst those in Oberon’s circle are the artist Carbury Glande who knows Agatha but, unbelievably, does not know she is married to one of Britain’s foremost policeman and a drug-addled, alcoholic actress who met Alleyn on a transatlantic voyage but surprisingly agrees to keep quiet about his identity. Even Ricky plays his part, nobly being kidnapped, waving from a balcony just at the moment his parents were gazing in that direction, and providing his father and his French counterpart with an excuse to raid the drug factory. And so it goes on.

Oberon and his cronies engage in almost every conceivable form of nefarious activities from murder to childnapping, from drug production, pushing and taking to deviant sexual practices and fraud. Although coy in her narrative, Marsh is more explicit in her descriptions of the sort of sexual hanky panky the cult gets up to, more so than some of her contemporaries.

Frankly, there is little dramatic tension in the plot and no mystery as we know who the culprits are and we are pretty certain that what the Alleyns saw was a murder. Thematically, it is a reworking of Death in Ecstasy which also features a sinister cult but does not reach its heights. The book ambles along and is enthralling enough but cannot rise above the welter of coincidences that make the plot so unbelievable. Perhaps Marsh was having a creative holiday herself when she wrote this.

Opening Night

A review of Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh – 230208

This is the sixteenth in Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series, originally published in 1951 and going under the title of Night at the Vulcan. It is a return to Marsh’s home from home, the theatre. Curiously, it is also a sequel to a short story of Marsh’s from 1946, I Can Find My Way Out, which featured a murder in the same theatre, although it was known as The Jupiter at the time, and involving some of the same characters, including Alleyn who carried out the investigations.

This time the newly renamed Vulcan is the scene for a full-length novel. Its strength is its opening sections in which we are introduced to a down-and-out actress, Martyn Tarne, newly arrived from New Zealand and having had her money stolen, who is desperately trying to find some form of paid employment. She arrives at the Vulcan where she meets one of Marsh’s better character creations, the nightwatchman, Fred Badger, who lets her stay overnight in the theatre.   

Although there is no part going in the play which is just about to open, the leading lady, Ella Hamilton, needs a dresser and, in the right place at the right time, Martyn secures the position. As is to be expected from a writer who spent part of her working career as a theatre director, Marsh depicts backstage life superbly, a maelstrom of bitchiness, rivalry, camaraderie, and one-upmanship. While Badger takes a more minor part in the narrative after the opening, his place is taken by the wonderfully characterised Frenchman, Jacko, who is everybody’s friend and seems to do more than his fair share of work as well as being the cast’s confidante.

There are romantic undercurrents within the cast; Ella Hamilton is married to Bennington but in love with the leading man, Adam Poole. Part of the theme of the play revolves around the similarity between Poole and his daughter, a role played by the flighty and nervous young actress, Gay Gainsford. What strikes the cast, though, is the remarkable physical resemblance between Martyn and Poole. A couple of days before the opening night, Martyn is offered the role of understudy to Gainsford, an appointment that spooks Gainsford so much that she refuses to go on stage. With little over thirty minutes notice, Martyn has to tread the boards, a remarkable and almost fairy tale-like transformation in her fortunes.

However, this does not last long. As the cast leave the stage, they are aware of the smell of gas and Bennington is found asphyxiated by gas fumes and beyond any attempts of resuscitation. Was it suicide or was it murder? It is at this point, well beyond the midway point of the story, that Alleyn arrives to take charge of proceedings.

His knowledge of the way that the previous murder at the theatre was carried out proves invaluable. As for motive and whodunit, this proves a little trickier. In the end it proves to be a case involving intellectual property and copyright, a seemingly obscure reason for committing murder but one, nevertheless, I came across in another Golden Age crime novel I read at around the same time.

I have always found Marsh a little bit of a mixed bag, sometimes trying my patience and sometimes bowling me along. Here, I found the book enjoyable, one of her best that I have read to date. The theatre is where she clearly seems comfortable and has produced a wonderful array of characters and a narrative that is fast-paced and leavened with wit. Alleyn’s exchanges with his sidekick, Fox, can be sometimes wearying, but if you have read some of her books before they soon merge into the background. It was also good to see a walk-on part for Charles Lamprey, last seen in a Surfeit of Lampreys, who has now joined the police.

Thoroughly recommended.

Swing, Brother, Swing

A review of Swing, Brother, Swing by Ngaio Marsh

This, the fifteenth in Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series, originally published in 1949, weaves together a tale involving a magazine’s agony aunt and an eccentric member of the British aristocracy. Lord Pastern & Bagott, that is one character whom I shall refer to henceforth as Lord Pastern, has throughout his life appalled his family with his new passions, which have ranged from consorting with Yogi to naturism, has taken up with some gusto a love for syncopated music. He cuts a dash on the tympani and has secured a spot in a leading swing band, headed up by the wonderfully named Breezy Bellairs.

He is scheduled to take a guest spot in the band’s forthcoming engagement at the Metronome club and has even composed a special number, Hot Guy, Hot Gunner, to mark the occasion. The number involves a tableau in which the band’s accordionist, Carlos Rivera, is shot using blank bullets which Pastern has prepared and carried off stage on stretcher with a wreath on his chest. What could possibly go wrong?

Meanwhile, Pastern’s stepdaughter, Félicité, known as Fée, is entangled in a love triangle with Rivera and cousin, Edward Manx, and has been seeking advice from the Harmony’s agony aunt, GPF (Guide, Philosopher, Friend), a magazine for which Manx writes. On the night of Pastern’s performance, she has fallen out with Rivera, Manx has assaulted him and wears a white carnation, the identifier of GPF, according to the latest missive she has received. Lady Pastern, appalled by her husband’s latest shenanigans, is persuaded to attend the nightclub and sits stony faced, showing her disapproval.

The gun goes off and Rivera is fatally wounded, but in true Marsh fashion it was not a bullet that kills him but a stiletto attached to part of a parasol owned by Lady Pastern. Was the stiletto fired from Pastern’s gun or was there some legerdemain on the stage once Rivera went down? There were enough people upset by Pastern, including some of the band members who resented his presence on stage, with enough opportunities to effect the substitution of stiletto for bullet.

It proves a tricky case for Alleyn, who was, of course, in the audience, on a table adjacent to the Pastern contingency, to solve with the able assistance of his colleague, Fox. Midway through the book, a darker tone is introduced to the tale, presaged earlier on, when narcotics, a familiar theme in Golden Age detective fiction, rear their head. There are some nifty pieces of misdirection and what initially seemed to be the motivation for Rivera’s murder and the likely motivation eventually prove to be far off target.

Although Alleyn identifies GPF and knows who killed Rivera and how, he is unable to prove it until he and his colleagues hear an unguarded conversation from the other side of a door. Although this wraps up the case, it is a pretty unsatisfactory conclusion to a book that seems to lose its way and becomes a very different mystery from that which it started out as.   

Marsh uses a series of letters and telegrams in the first chapter to set the stage for what is an unnecessarily complicated tale. There are some bright spots, though. Her love of all matters theatrical shines through and her characterisation of the lead characters is good. Pastern is painted as an exasperating fool, but lovably engaging. By way of an obiter, we learn that Agatha, Alleyn’s wife, is pregnant and Fox will be his godfather.   

It is an entertaining enough book but is far from being one of her best. In the States it goes by the more prosaic title of A Wreath for Rivera.