Sunday, 5 February 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Overture to Death by Ngaio Marsh

 
published 1939


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES 


 
UTILITY UNDERWEAR: CLOTHING RESTRICTIONS ON THE BRITISH HOME FRONT, 1943
[Detective Roderick Alleyn is questioning the witnesses after a death in a village hall]


‘And apart from that time you never left the stage?’

‘Oh! Oh, yes, I did go to the telephone before that, when they were trying to get Mrs Ross’s house. That was at half-past seven. The telephone is an extension of ours and our maid, Mary, is deaf and takes a long time to answer.’

‘We were all frantic,’ said Dinah, from the window. ‘The squire and Henry and Father and I were all standing round the telephone, with Miss Campanula roaring instructions, poor old thing. The squire hadn’t got any trousers on, only pink woollen underpants. Miss Prentice came along, and when she saw him she cackled like a hen and flew away, but no one else minded about the squire’s pants, not even Miss C. We were all in a flat spin about the others being late, you see. Father was just coming over to ring from here, when we got through.’

‘I returned to the stage then,’ said the rector.

‘I can’t tell you exactly what I did,’ said Dinah. ‘I was all over the place.’

commentary: This is halfway through the book, and is classic Marsh, where long long passages are devoted to what everyone was doing at every precise moment. When she has stunned us all into a fugue state, she then shows that it is perfectly obvious that only X could have walked across the room at the right moment. But I will say that the sudden revelation that the squire was in his underpants certainly made me sit up and pay attention. Of course, it’s because they are all getting costumes on ready to perform a play.

The first third of the book was excellent - I very much enjoyed the caustic picture of a small village group preparing to put on a play (for charity, of course) and fighting and competing with each other in the most genteel way possible – there’s a chapter called ‘Six Parts and Seven Actors’. The pillars of village life are horrified that a rather shady woman has been invited to join them – although she is blonde, the rest of the description of Mrs Ross and her clothes very much reminded me of the Duchess of Windsor, who had stolen the King not long before.

But the book takes a dive once the murder has happened. Marsh goes even further than usual in showing us clearly who is nice and who isn’t. At one point, while interviewing suspects, Alleyn has this thought:
As he lit his pipe he was visited by a strange thought. It came into his mind that he stood on the threshold of a new relationship, that he would return to this old room and again sit before the fire.
Not to spoiler, but do we seriously then think that anyone living in the house concerned is any longer implicated in the crime? And Marsh gives a most uncomfortable portrait of spinsters (who turn out to be around 50) and of religion, no redeeming features anywhere.

But then she’s not much nicer about poor Mrs Ross, who is most certainly not a spinster, but has a ‘polite wantoness’. If I’d read the book blind I would have been sure it was by a man because of the extreme judgements on women of various kinds. (A prevailing problem with Marsh is that no woman can resist Alleyn – an embarrassing and unconvincing feature of the books.)

My friend Lucy Fisher, an expert on Ngaio Marsh, says of this book
the murder method is so complicated that the detectives spend pages and pages explaining it to each other
- and that’s absolutely right. It defies belief that anyone would commit this particular murder in that particular way, let alone the person who did.

It is very much a book of its time. The Squire suddenly remembers that he is Acting Chief Constable, which apparently gives no conflict of interest, despite the possibility he might be a suspect. There is a squeaking gate which is clearly marked on the obligatory map in the book. And I assumed that Ethelbert Nevin (Miss Prentice’s favourite composer) was invented, but was delighted to find out he was real.

The first section of the book made it worth it, along with the entertaining country policeman, and a few joys such as a character taking ‘small mimbling steps’.

Picture of men’s utility underwear from the Imperial War Museum collection.

















13 comments:

  1. Marsh didn't always nail, Moira. I do like her descriptions of groups of people (as in the beginning of this one), but, yes, those are some glaring failings later in the book. Still, the squire in his underpants is a funny moment. It's those sorts of things that help add to Marsh's writing, I think.

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    1. A lot of this book was quite splendid, very funny and entertaining, so I have to forgive her the bizarre and unbelievable murder method and culprit...

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  2. I must say that woollen underpants do not sound very comfortable - or easy to wash. Ethelbert Nevin! Wonderful!

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    1. I spend half my time reading old books wondering how on earth they washed or dried any of their clothes. Drying clothes seems to feature a lot in my 21st C life, and I have every advantage.
      Yes. Must look out some Ethelbert Nevin music if poss. Somehow one doesn't have great expectations...

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  3. I rather like this one actually. It's rather improbable, yes, but I do think the way it was set up is rather well done, and actually made kind of sense in the context of the book. But only really in this particular book, and only because that particular character (as drawn) happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right tools at their disposal...

    Some of the other Marsh books are RIDICULOUSLY technical, I think it's "Death and the Dancing Footman" that has a particularly Byzantine pulleys-and-hamster-wheels set-up for the actual murder, (something Heath-Robinson-esque involving radio knobs and swinging things on wires?) but it may be another one I'm vaguely thinking of.

    But yes, the first part of the book is great, and I actually thought the clues were well distributed in this one, especially the bit where two of the characters see the murderer and there's a detail about their appearance that you look back on at the solution and go "ohhhh! yes!" It only wrong-foots the reader because of how the character is drawn and how the other characters feel about that character.

    (god, trying to avoid spoilers means that this has ended up reading like Ngaio Marsh herself describing a murder solution....)

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    1. It was that encounter which gave the game away for me.

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    2. Yes, it was worth reading for the fun of the first half or more. And yes - Dancing Footman will be coming soon on the blog, and it is the one you're thinking of!
      Well done Mark for solving the crime...

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  4. With Marsh it really does seem like her books had a decent first half to introduce the characters and situation and then a much less memorable investigation ... You can tell this is a problem for me, can't you ... :)

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    1. Yes, now I think about it there are several books like this one. She could be so funny and acerbic - perhaps she should have written straight novels.

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  5. I was just going to say pretty much what Sergio said. I read the first half of the books ten or so years ago and enjoyed them, then I read one since I started blogging that I liked fine, but basically for the first half. I need to read more of them to tell what I think of her books now.

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    1. I had had a long gap before starting re-reading a while back, and actually they are better than I remembered. But still not completely satisfying.

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  6. Someday Ngaio Marsh will prevail on my reading chart, Moira. Until then I will be content reading such fine reviews of her books.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words Prashant. There are too many books, too little time.

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