Quick Look: Hand In Glove, by Ngaio Marsh (1962)

Hand In Glove, by Ngaio Marsh (1962)

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Fontana, their 4th paper edition from 1974

What’s this book about?

Elderly, fussy Mr. Pyke Period, quite fixated on lineage, is sharing his house with a brace of excellent servants and has recently taken a roommate, retired solicitor Harold Cartell (whose boxer bitch Pixie keeps the household in a constant uproar). Mr. Pyke Period is writing a book on etiquette and to that end hires Nicola Maitland-Mayne as a temporary typist, mostly because of her family connections. Harold Cartell’s family connections include being the second husband of Desiree, Lady Bantling, blowsy and rackety, who lives nearby with her third husband, the bibulous Bimbo Dodds and aspiring painter Andrew Bantling, Desiree’s son by her first (deceased) husband.  They also include his sister Constance “Connie” Cartell, loud and brash, whose slutty adopted niece “Moppett” and her unspeakably awful and vaguely criminal boyfriend Leonard Leiss are creating social havoc in the neighbourhood. Aspiring painter Andrew and semi-aristocratic typist Nicola meet and fall in love — Nicola will soon introduce him to her good friend, the celebrated painter Agatha Troy Alleyn, and her husband Roderick “Handsome” Alleyn, Scotland Yard Inspector. In fact, Nicola and Andrew are a common sight in Marsh mysteries, the young couple in the throes of new love, and they have a charming romantic relationship that serves as a relief from the unpleasant nature of most of the rest of the characters.

434051142After we meet the principals and the neighbourhood, Mr. Pyke Period gives a strained luncheon party at which his heirloom cigarette case disappears, and later that day Lady Bantling gives a hard-drinking scavenger hunt on the occasion of April Fool’s Day. Pairs of party guests are all over the neighbourhood searching for clues. It will be no surprise to the experienced mystery reader when Harold, who has quarrelled with or is an impediment, financial or social, to pretty much everyone in the novel, turns up at the bottom of a workmen’s ditch the next morning, having had a dirty great sewer pipe rolled down upon him.

Superintendent Alleyn takes charge and leads Inspector Fox through a brief investigation — brief, because it doesn’t really take a lot of effort to eliminate a great mass of red herring subplots and narrow the focus to motive and opportunity.  Everyone’s movements during the long and confused party are traced, and various lies, mistakes, and subterfuges are put to rest in a remarkably short time; the disappearance of the cigarette case, why the strained luncheon was so strained, why Connie Cartell got a letter of condolence the day before her brother died, the events of the party, and the criminous activities of loathsome Leonard and manipulative Moppet. Things come to a head when one character is bopped on the head,non-fatally, and Alleyn soon works out why and by whom. And since the murderer is helpfully the only person who meets a single physical criterion necessary to the killer, and the reader is directly shown that, it is not a huge achievement to figure out whodunnit just as fast as does Handsome Alleyn, but it does feel good to figure out the mystery, doesn’t it?

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1st edition, U.S.

Why is this worth reading?

I believe it’s generally agreed that the works of Ngaio Marsh begin to decline in quality, pretty much at this precise point in her career. Before this point, she had a long period of, say, 90% well-crafted books, and after this point the comments are of the “Well, this is good BUT” variety. Flaws begin to accrete: poor pacing, unbelievable characters, clearly manipulated plot structures, anachronistic social contexts.  Worst of all, the books got boring. Marsh has always been known for mishandling Act II; Alleyn meets the characters and interviews them, one per chapter,until the reader wants desperately for something to happen. her skill in characterization frequently had to carry the reader through to Act III, when the solution begins to coalesce. In books written after this point, believe me, you’ll occasionally want to scream.

I have been known to be unkind about many of Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries, although I’ve certainly read every single one a number of times. I don’t seem to like the same ones other people do, although there’s a certain pleasure in revisiting Marsh’s characterization skills even in ghastly failures like The Nursing Home Murders — or Last Ditch, which I reviewed here, and which actually made my “Die Before You Read” list. My personal favourite is Overture to Death (1939, a great year for art in many media) but I also think 1955’s Scales of Justice is a fine mystery novel. Most of the rest of her novels have various flaws, but the ones set in New Zealand have an assuredness of place that is sometimes absent in her work. By and large, though, my opinion is, if there are four Queens of Crime, she for me is #4.

That being said — I have recently re-read this novel, never having thought it particularly distinguished in the past, and I have to say, it has considerable skill and intelligence that I missed upon previous readings. Perhaps it’s that I’ve finally realized what she was setting out to do; this book has a Theme. It is About Something; there is a central concept at its core. In previous essays here, I’ve mentioned that for me an essential element of a well-written mystery novel is this kind of dovetailing of the pieces around a central concept. For instance, if a mystery’s central crime (the A plot) is focused around plagiarism at a university, then the B plot should eventually also resolve itself to be focused around plagiarism, in a different way. I used the imaginary example of a popular restaurant owner plagued by a blackmailer because, as it later turns out, her best recipes were stolen — or plagiarized. Everything in the book is sooner or later related to the theme of one person stealing another’s creative work.

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First edition

I can’t think of how I came to miss it before, but this book does have a theme that just revealed itself to me: the subtle one of family. In this book it includes pride in one’s family tree for Mr. Pyke Period (who has created his own family of servants); this contrasts with the light approach of Desiree, Lady Bantling, who is on her third marriage but still casually uses the title she acquired with the first husband. Charmingly, it includes an actual family tree in the novel — which I hadn’t realized until now is a big clue as to what Marsh was on about here. Nearly everyone in the book is somehow focused upon matrimony, or divorce, or lineage, or their lives have been affected by someone else’s concerns. Connie Cartell, for instance, is child- and boyfriend-free, but she has somehow “adopted” a young girl — to create her own family. Her niece Moppett and her ghastly boyfriend are creating a partnership like Bonnie and Clyde. Nicola and Andrew, of course, are clearly going to be affianced by the end of the novel. And from high emotions to low comedy … Howard’s boxer, Pixie, is in heat– she wants a family too! There’s a reasonably funny scene in the book where Pixie once again slips her leash, every male dog for miles ends up competing for her sexual attentions, and a huge dog fight ensues. At moments of such large-scale crisis, people get unguarded and important clues might appear…

Once I realized that there was this theme built into the structure of the book, I was quite charmed by how deftly the plot had been constructed. I began to see the way in which certain less prominent characters had been designed to provide counterpoint to a different view of family; there was a kind of organic quality to the book so that it seemed that the characters’ differences were merely casual and random, but they had to have been planned. It’s a difficult thing to do for any mystery writer, because it means the book has to be consciously mapped from the outset to make sure that all the pieces contribute to the theme. The late Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels contain great examples of this technique, where the crime that Wexford is solving has strange reverberations in the activities of his family — at the end of the novel, you realize that “everybody has the same problems”. That’s what Marsh does here, and it’s very well done indeed.

I’m more used to finding mysteries that are constructed like this in what I might call more serious works; novelists like Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar and Fredric Brown, telling dark stories of how people deal with, for instance, insanity. It’s a nice surprise to find that level of construction in what “Francis Iles” (Anthony Berkeley) said in the Guardian (at least according to the blurb on my Fontana paperback), is “Light, entertaining and disastrously readable.” You know, it is. It’s fast-moving, clever, funny, and she’s managed to avoid the sag of Act II by telescoping the action into a very brief time period and having engrossing sub-plots.

It was a pleasure to discern this structure because I felt pleased at being able to find more ability in her work than I sometimes have. For many readers she is a favourite, and it’s hard to be objective about someone who admittedly has a reputation for writing great mysteries that will endure my opinion. Perhaps someday I’ll write about why there are so many of her books where I say to myself, “I like this book, BUT …”.  In this case, I learned something about how to structure a mystery novel and had a chance to appreciate why she really is a Queen of Crime. You may not care for the general air of unpleasantness among most of the main characters, as I didn’t for many years, but I hope you will now be able to discern the great bone structure beneath the surface of this novel. Enjoy.

Berkeley F-777My favourite edition

Most editions of this novel have been relatively undistinguished. In 1974, the edition with the cover art shown at the head of this piece and which I read to produce it, I remember being chagrined because it was the signal that Fontana had changed its mind about the uniform edition they had been doing with a photographic representation of the dead body on the cover — as my readers know, I like that idea for some reason! So there is no photo edition of this particular title. I’d have to go with Berkley F-777 shown to the left, although it too was a signal; it’s about when Berkley switched from small size paperbacks to a taller format, and the industry followed along. This was from the early 60s, and if it had been produced a few years earlier, the book would be cut off at her calves. So the size was unusual and “modern” for its time, although it doesn’t seem so to us. And I like the cheerful way that the striking cover art flirts with giving away the secret of the contents.

200 authors I would recommend (Part 3)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; the immediately previous article, Part 2, is here; the next piece, Part 4, is found here.

1339239828921.  Brean, Herbert

This author only wrote a handful of books, but all seven are worth your time. Wilders Walk Away is a spooky tale about the Wilder family, who has this funny habit of walking out of the house never to be seen again. Supernatural shenanigans not far off the approach of John Dickson Carr, where everything is resolved un-supernaturally at the end. Really classic American detective fiction, well-written and smart, and frequently with a strong flavour of what I’ll call “Americana”; Brean takes the flavour of the English village mystery and transplants it to the US very successfully. The Traces of Brillhart is an interesting mystery that used to make my life hell; a paperback publisher had mistakenly attributed it to Carr in the back pages of the book and every so often someone would come in and insist that this was the last Carr on their list to track down and read. I hate disappointing a Carr fan!

100151127322. Brett, Simon

I first came to appreciate Simon Brett through his very funny series about hard-drinking second-rate actor Charles Paris, who is constantly hard up and wondering where his next bottle of Bell’s whisky is coming from. Brett takes his protagonist through murder plots set against nearly every type of acting job, from crummy rep theatres to radio drama to cheesy horror films, all with a knowing wink and a great deal of sympathy for the long-suffering Mr. Paris. Lately Brett’s very active writing career has branched out into three other series; not my all-time favourites but still worth a read. Brett is one of the few writers who, for me, successfully balances light humour with murder.

2700481368_178b0a546623. Brown, Fredric

It’s always astounding to me that an author can find success in both the mystery and science fiction fields; when you couple it with a talent for writing great short stories and superb work at the novel length, you have a recipe for great success. Unfortunately the hard-drinking Mr. Brown never found great financial success in his lifetime; rather like Philip K. Dick, he’s more esteemed today than when he was alive. Brown has the ability to convey seedy and disreputable and poverty-stricken backgrounds wonderfully well — carnivals and cheap printing operations and sad rooming houses. You can just about hear the sad jazz score in the background. His most successful novel is probably The Screaming Mimi, which was made into a film, but Brown-lovers esteem the Ed and Am Hunter series most highly. Start with The Fabulous Clipjoint and be prepared to not put it down till it’s finished — it’s that good. Be warned; if you want to actually own physical copies of his books, it’s likely to cost you a small fortune.

089733033124. Bruce, Leo

Leo Bruce is the mystery pseudonym of Rupert Croft-Cooke, who actually spent time in prison because of his homosexuality (see the Wikipedia article here). His Sergeant Beef mysteries are broadly amusing and still excellent puzzle mysteries; there’s a strong flavour of parody. His best known Beef novel, Case for Three Detectives, features the beer-swilling detective beating out thinly-disguised portraits of Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown to the solution. The series featuring acerbic schoolmaster Carolus Deene is much longer and was less successful towards the end of the author’s career, as frequently happens, but there are more than enough good ones from the 50s and 60s to keep the reader of classic British puzzle mysteries happy. Bruce is a sadly overlooked writer who deserves a revival; his writing is excellent, his plotting is first-rate and his general approach is classic.

071235716525. Bude, John

John Bude is another classic British mystery writer overdue for a revival and I’m happy to say that his first novel, The Lake District Murder, is now back in print and gaining him a generation of new fans. I haven’t read The Cornish Coast Mystery but it too is easily available now. Both will serve as excellent introductions to this author’s many novels, which I found delicate and sensible, without too much blood and thunder; rather like the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts. When I was searching them out, these novels were rare and expensive; they were worth savouring as well-written examples of the classic English mystery. Humdrum expert Curtis Evans refers to Bude (in the comments below the linked article) as a “competent third-stringer”; I might be a little more generous. Perhaps it’s merely scarcity that prompts me to recommend him but I think you’ll enjoy his books.

Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy26. Burley, W. J.

Burley is best known as the author of the Inspector Wycliffe (WICK-liff) mysteries set in the British West Country, which became the basis for an interesting television programme that my American friends possibly won’t have seen. When you see the television episodes, you realize that the amazing countryside is indeed a strong underpinning of the books; without that knowledge, they’re merely above-average Scotland Yard mysteries. I also enjoyed the two early novels about amateur detective Henry Pym, including Death In Willow Pattern, but you’ll find it much easier to acquire a handful of the 22 Wycliffe novels and settle in for a relaxing weekend.

murder md27. Burton, Miles

Miles Burton is actually a major pseudonym of the prolific Cecil Street, who is probably better known as mystery writer John Rhode. I wanted to recommend both names (you’ll find John Rhode listed later in this series) because the author’s work deserves to be better known. I have to confess I haven’t read many Miles Burton novels, but the few that have passed through my hands have been uniformly interesting. I recommend Murder, M.D. and Death Takes The Living from personal knowledge as being excellent, and A Smell of Smoke has many points of interest. I note here that Ramble House Publishers have brought a couple of Burton titles back into print in recent years, as has a publisher called Black Curtain Press. I must say that I’m not certain that Black Curtain has permission to reprint these titles; if respect for copyright is as important to you as it should be, you may wish to investigate before you purchase.

51HQ--9M8bL28. Carlson, P. M.

P. M. (Pat) Carlson deserves to be much better known for the eight-volume Maggie Ryan series of mysteries (there are others from this writer but I haven’t managed to read them). I’ve read bunches and bunches of “spunky but loveable young woman takes an amateur hand at solving mysteries” and rarely have I found it better done than this series. Carlson knows what she’s talking about in terms of academic backgrounds — Murder is Academic and Murder is Pathological are, to my certain knowledge, accurate as all get-out, and it’s nice to see these settings portrayed by someone who knows them. (Murder is Academic will absolutely delight the professorial types on your Xmas list; guaranteed.) The backgrounds are interesting, the characters are unusual but not outré, and have depth; the mysteries are clever, and the writing is fine. One of the few times when a “spunky but loveable” character doesn’t make me want to throw the book across the room.

funeral29. Carnac, Carol

Another instance of a great author (Edith C. Rivett) being published under two names, both of which are worth looking for; you’ll find E. C. R. Lorac further down this list.  And another instance where I have to recommend you try to find these books even though I haven’t managed to read all of them myself; Carnac/Lorac novels are scarce, sought-after, and expensive — but for good reason. I really enjoyed A Policeman at the Door and It’s Her Own Funeral, and every other Inspector Rivers/Inspector Ryvet novel I’ve ever managed to find. Classic British detection at its best; an undercurrent of sly humour and a strong knowledge of human behaviour coupled with solid writing make these books very worth finding.

three-coffins30. Carr, John Dickson

There isn’t much I can say about John Dickson Carr if you haven’t found your way to him already; I’m just going to hit the high points. He’s one of the most famous — justly famous — mystery writers of all time. You’ll also find his major pseudonym, Carter Dickson, further down his list; these are the two faces of an absolute Grand Master of mystery. JDC is the master of the locked-room mystery, and my Golden Age Detection Facebook group has spent hours discussing which of his many, many books is the best. Carr as Carr writes mostly about Dr. Gideon Fell, an elderly lexicographer who unerringly puzzles out how murders were committed in impossible circumstances, and a smaller series about juge d’instruction Henri Bencolin. Everything with Carr’s name on it is worth reading (there are a few clunkers at the very end of a long and honourable career, but even those are worth your time). Carr knew how to write melodramatic mystery; not much on characterization, and a bit sexist at a time when that was more acceptable, but holy moly the man could plot mysteries. He’s well known for introducing supernatural elements which turn out to be necessary to the down-to-earth murderer’s plotting. The Three Coffins has a huge reputation as one of the best locked-room mysteries of all time (and stops for a chapter to explain the mechanics of the locked-room mystery). I like to recommend some lesser-known minor* novels as being good places to start, notably The Sleeping Sphinx, He Who Whispers, and To Wake the Dead. Wherever you begin with Carr, I trust you’ll acquire the taste for everything he ever wrote.

(*Corrected on the date of publication; my friend Xavier Lechard is correct, He Who Whispers isn’t “minor”, it’s merely lesser known.)