The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Book scouting Ngaio Marsh (Post 3 of 3)

12306031_10206402692678970_1432065432_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in December will be devoted to Ngaio Marsh, and in January to Rex Stout.

Book scouting Ngaio Marsh (Part 3 of 3)

I was going to do a post about my favourite paperback editions of Ngaio Marsh, until I started pulling together cover photos and found I actually had quite a few more than would easily fit into a single post.  So I’ve divided them in three, simply for your convenience.

Book scouting is the process of finding books that a bookseller wants and selling them to her so that she can supply her customers.  My experience is that all booksellers will have a “want list” generated when customers say, “Hey, if you ever get in a copy of THAT, give me a call.” Some people want reading copies, but collectors frequently want a specific edition of a specific book.  You won’t have a very enjoyable hobby if you try to scout first editions with jackets — you might find one book in five years that you can afford to buy at a price that a bookseller can afford to buy and then resell.  But you can have a lot of fun trying to find specific paperback editions to suit particular collectors.

So these three posts comprise three editions that I know are collectible — and actually collected. Post #1 is here — post #2 is here — and post #3 is below.

9780006131588-uk-300 Fontana “corpsebacks” (late 60s-mid 70s):

I’ve always been a fan of this cover art idea, to the great dismay of some of my blogging friends with better taste. ;-) The concept has been executed a number of times in the history of detective fiction paperbacks; essentially, the publisher creates a posed photograph with a model and a set, carefully constructed to show the prospective reader the corpse around whom the action revolves. I call them “corpsebacks” but I admit nobody else will be familiar with this terminology unless they’ve been listening to me extolling their virtues over the years! I’ll hasten to add that there’s nothing extremely gory about this set — nobody’s missing half their skull or anything vulgar like that. This is, relatively speaking, tasteful … okay, not tasteful. But decorous.  It’s Ngaio Marsh, not Mickey Spillane. (I understand, on no authority that I can confirm, that a question was asked about these books in the British House of Commons, along the same lines as investigations into horror comics not long before. The government apparently did nothing about them.)

10082401564_faf051a920The apprentice book scout should also note that this edition offers one of the most fertile fields for book scouting; the variorum edition. Whenever you have a situation in which more than one version of the same book was done, the true collector’s ears prick up and both versions must, of course, be obtained. Here, many of the books were published as wrap-around photographs, and a few were cropped for a different edition into the same front cover but a type-only back cover. Death at the Bar — I’ll show you the particular volumes first to give you the idea — is different in the front-only shot and the wraparound shot, as is Died in the Wool.

The impetus for the series deteriorated as time went by, the wraparound covers disappeared, and Fontana signalled its intention to move forward with the first paperback edition of Last Ditch, which featured the murder weapon surrounded with lots of blood, but no corpse. Below, I’ll show you the front covers followed by the wraparounds. Personally I think the wraparounds are more collectible, but collectors should want both styles, as I’ve said. I have nothing to back it up except memory, but I’ve seen a lot of these books go through my hands and the rarest one seems to me to be Singing in the Shrouds.

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The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Book scouting Ngaio Marsh (Post 2 of 3)

12306031_10206402692678970_1432065432_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in December will be devoted to Ngaio Marsh.

Book scouting Ngaio Marsh (Part 2 of 3)

I was going to do a post about my favourite paperback editions of Ngaio Marsh, until I started pulling together cover photos and found I actually had quite a few more than would easily fit into a single post.  So I’ve divided them in three, simply for your convenience.

Book scouting is the process of finding books that a bookseller wants and selling them to her so that she can supply her customers.  My experience is that all booksellers will have a “want list” generated when customers say, “Hey, if you ever get in a copy of THAT, give me a call.” Some people want reading copies, but collectors frequently want a specific edition of a specific book.  You won’t have a very enjoyable hobby if you try to scout first editions with jackets — you might find one book in five years that you can afford to buy at a price that a bookseller can afford to buy and then resell.  But you can have a lot of fun trying to find specific paperback editions to suit particular collectors.

So these three posts comprise three editions that I know are collectible — and actually collected. Post #1 is here — this is post #2 — and post #3 will be here in about a week (Fontana “corpsebacks”).

Berkley Medallion (late 50s/early 60s)

It doesn’t seem like this company was doing anything groundbreaking, but believe me, it was quite avant-garde to create a line of paperbacks by the same author that were all kind of the same … visually linked, as it were. A pretty girl, a large title, a quote from a critic, and something menacing that might be a weapon. Berkley realized that people like to “collect” books and, at least for a certain kind of reader (like me), it’s very appealing to have a complete edition by the same author that all look somewhat the same on your shelves. It makes your library look purposeful and curated, rather than, “Oh, I haven’t read that one.” Many paperback companies had branded their books with a “look and feel” — Pocket, for instance, and certainly Penguin greenbacks in the UK.  Berkley at this point was distinguishing its paperbacks in the US marketplace by increasing their height to the same as Penguins, and every other US publisher soon followed suit. But for at least Ngaio Marsh and Elisabeth Daly, Berkley gave them the prestige of bringing their novels to the public as a “group”, so that if you had liked the last one, you might pick up this one.  A forward move that has found favour among collectors.

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The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Book scouting Ngaio Marsh (Part 1 of 3)

12306031_10206402692678970_1432065432_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in December will be devoted to Ngaio Marsh.

Book scouting Ngaio Marsh (Part 1 of 3)

I was going to do a post about my favourite paperback editions of Ngaio Marsh, until I started pulling together cover photos and found I actually had quite a few more than would easily fit into a single post.  So I’ve divided them in three, simply for your convenience.

Book scouting is the process of finding books that a bookseller wants and selling them to her so that she can supply her customers.  My experience is that all booksellers will have a “want list” generated when customers say, “Hey, if you ever get in a copy of THAT, give me a call.” Some people want reading copies, but collectors frequently want a specific edition of a specific book.  You won’t have a very enjoyable hobby if you try to scout first editions with jackets — you might find one book in five years that you can afford to buy at a price that a bookseller can afford to buy and then resell.  But you can have a lot of fun trying to find specific paperback editions to suit particular collectors.

So these three posts comprise three editions of Ngaio Marsh that I know are collectible — and actually collected. This is post #1 — posts #2 and #3 I’ll link to here when they’re published in the next two weeks, but they’ll be on Berkley Medallion and what I call the Fontana “corpsebacks”.

Collins White Circle Canada (1940s)

Yes, I have to admit, this publishing company is certainly my current favourite as far as vintage paperbacks goes. They’re from Canada, I’m from Canada, and not many people outside Canada know about them; I’m now a champion for them.  The company published between 1942 and 1952; the editions were poorly-made and quite fragile — in the case of the earliest numbers so few survived that there may actually be fewer than five copies left in existence of some titles. But the thing that attracts me is just how cheerfully and unashamedly lurid some of them are. The earliest books seem determined to hold all that design nonsense down to a bare minimum, thanks — “We’ll sell them like Penguins” seem to have been the motto.  But a few years into it, they abandoned all that staid reserve and just went absolutely crazy with terrible artwork and loud, gaudy designs, including some cheerful photographic Good Girl Art when no one else was putting photographs on paperback covers.  As a result your reaction will range from “Isn’t that charming!” to “What were they thinking!” (For instance, check out the cross-eyed ingenue with the wacky hairdo on A Wreath for Rivera below, who appears to be trying to read the mind of someone across the room.) All Collins White Circle Canada editions are collectible and the prices at knowledgeable secondhand stores will equal or exceed the price of a current paperback of the same book (right now, about $10 Canadian for any Very Good edition and double or triple that for Near Fine and above).  Here are some Ngaio Marsh titles that will let you know what I mean about being lurid and gaudy, though.

Oh, and just because it makes it more interesting for collectors ;-) — some of the paperbacks have more than one printing with different covers (some plain, some gaudy). Some of the covers were re-used for different editions, but with slightly different colours. At least one title has four different cover states and “at least sixty-three of the books come in two or more variants”, according to an expert. So you can go crazy trying to figure out what you have, but if you amass a large number of these books and can compare, say, the red background of one to the pink background of another, you’ll have valuable information that you can use to sell your books to collectors.

The earlier Collins White Circle Canada were all like this, before they went lurid

 

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The Tuesday Night Bloggers: My five most/least favourite Ngaio Marsh novels

12306031_10206402692678970_1432065432_nA group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in December will be devoted to Ngaio Marsh.

My five most and least favourite Ngaio Marsh novels

(and why I think so)

Last week  I performed this same exercise with respect to Ellery Queen. That, frankly, was easy compared to this. For me, the EQ novels were quite easy to rank sufficiently to produce a five-best/five worst list. Ngaio Marsh is quite a different matter. There are no “great” Marsh novels — no absolute masterpiece that has stood the test of time and received the universal adulation of critics and readers. In this, Marsh stands alone among the Crime Queens of the Golden Age; everyone can rattle off the best and the worst Agatha Christies, etc., or the one that stands above the rest for almost any Golden Age writer.

That being said, there are no really terrible ones either. Okay, like many, many of the Golden Age masters, she probably should have stopped writing about two novels before she actually did. (Her third-last novel, Grave Mistake from 1978, would have made an excellent close to a long career.) And like many of the Golden Age masters near the end of their lives, she was apparently too powerful to edit. To me they read like she wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the process.  But that’s as may be.

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Ngaio Marsh

What that suggests is that there is a large undifferentiated mass of 32 novels that are all more or less well-written; none too bad, none too good. And honestly, I think this is the case. There don’t seem to be identifiable periods, as with Ellery Queen; there are no repeating themes that last more than a handful of volumes (theatrical backgrounds, members of Alleyn’s family helping with the detection).

There’s one common fault in many Marsh novels for which she is well known — the dreaded “Act II sag”. The stage has been set, the characters introduced, the body has just been discovered. Then Alleyn arrives on the scene and everything slows right d-o-w-n to a crawl as Alleyn and Fox interview each suspect separately, more or less a chapter apiece. Sometimes the book recovers its pace (especially when there is a prompt and unexpected second murder), sometimes Alleyn goes back for another round of interviews (zzzzzzzz). So one of the ways I identify my favourites is if they lack the Act II sag.

Another way I decided on my favourite Marsh novels is by assessing the characterization. Marsh is highly esteemed for the excellence of her characters; people remark that they are vivid and colourful and realistic and, many times, endearing. I tend to agree, although my natural pessimism militates against me enjoying the wackier, more free-spirited characters as much as others do. Marsh had the knack of creating memorable characters. Only occasionally did she have the knack of creating memorable believable characters, and it’s these instances that I esteem more highly.

hero_ngaio-marsh-leaningSimilarly, Marsh’s plot structures range from “thoroughly realistic” to “what was she smoking?”. One black hole into which she seems to fall is the introduction of plot elements based on drug smuggling. As I’ve remarked elsewhere (a link will be below) Marsh apparently knew bugger-all about drugs and their underlying economics and so the attempts of Alleyn and the Yard to deal with smuggling-related murders are sometimes dire. Similarly, Marsh’s experience in the theatre is definitely an asset as background for the novels. Where it fails for me is when she attempts to describe the actual process of putting on a play. Oh, I’m sure she has the details right, it’s just that no producer in his right mind would take on most of the ones she’s invented. (And, parenthetically, I have yet to think of any realistic reason why, in Killer Dolphin, a very wealthy gentleman should make a present of a theatre to a complete stranger, except that the plot cannot move forward without that happening.) She is at her best when she is writing about actors, but not so great writing about their work. Fortunately she’s better with painters/sculptors and their products; for some reason she has the knack of being able to show you a piece of art and you can believe that it’s excellent by the way she describes it. I like her work when I can believe in all the underlying premises and there’s nothing that sticks out as comparatively phony.

kingrodSo ultimately there is not much among which to choose five most favourites and five least favourites. I had two in each category immediately and then had to scrape around and consider … no novel actually moved between lists, but for the final three in each category, I might have exchanged the title with a dozen others in the “beta-minus/gamma-plus” category.

What finally ended up tipping the balance in favour of the list you see has to do with a strange coincidence. In connection with another project upon which I’m working, last year I had the not entirely unpleasant task of re-reading all of Marsh. And ultimately that’s where this list came from. I simply asked myself, which novels could I stand to immediately re-read, and which would I avoid as long as possible? And that’s the list you have before you.

As always in situations like this, your mileage may vary. I frequently find that people cherish one or another Ngaio Marsh novel because of something that speaks to them individually; they love that a zany peer would work as a nightclub drummer, or they find personal parallels in the story of a woman MP in rural New Zealand, or they find the bathetic story of a starving young actress has touched their heart. I cannot gainsay your feelings, folks, and I won’t dare to try. If you have a reason for liking a book that you particularly like, that’s fine with me. Merely allow me mine, is all.

My five most favourite Ngaio Marsh novels

And, as you will soon note, in reverse numerical order. My favourite novel is at the end of this list.

5. Vintage Murder (1937)

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I note that this is the earliest Marsh novel I favour. Up until now, she was still experimenting and finding her way. But in her fifth novel a number of different things begin to work successfully to produce a satisfying and ultimately charming mystery. One is that she’s learned to depict “good” characters who aren’t all good, and “bad” ones who are leavened with humanity. Another is that she goes here for the first time to the locale which many people believe to be her greatest strength, her home country of New Zealand. A featured Maori character is a fully-rounded person. She also mixes this with her great knowledge of the theatrical milieu and tells a convincing story of a traveling repertory company; a training ground for young ingenues, a retirement scheme for an elderly character actress, and a starring role for a lead actress married to an impresario. We see how a small community reacts to the visit from an outside “celebrity”, and it’s really well-observed stuff. Ultimately what I like about this novel is that it’s a smart mystery with great local colour and interesting, believable characters. I can forgive the hesitant suggestions of a potential love interest for Alleyn here, pre-Troy, but it’s interesting to know that he sets his sights high (the lead, not the ingenue). And all this comes together in a book that has the evanescent and rare quality of charm.

4. Death at the Bar (1940)

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This one I enjoyed because it sets out to tell a small story and really accomplishes its job well. Instead of a broad cast of characters there are really only a couple here, quite detailed and intelligently drawn; this is one of the novels where I believe Marsh really does understand people and, more importantly, has affection for their foibles. This novel suffers a tiny bit from a certain air of coldness … the characters are not so deliberately likeable as many of her others. But when you compare the murderer in this one from a similar situation in a novel of hers five years previously, it’s like night and day. This murderer is nuanced and believable. And the milieu! Obviously I can’t say how much time Marsh had to spend in a country pub, or many, in order to lay the groundwork for what we see here. But I really enjoy seeing something that is as well understood as the village pub at the centre of a small village, and shown to us not in its full detailed glory, as might have Freeman Wills Crofts, but as a detailed background to a small and well-crafted mystery. There’s a bit of Act II sag, but ultimately I believed that this murder had been committed for believable reasons by a believable character, and that’s not always the case with Marsh.

3. Scales of Justice (1955)

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Since I find one of the most enjoyable things about Marsh’s novels to be the way that intelligently-drawn characters do realistic things against a well-understood background, this has always been a favourite of mine. Marsh really does understand people from this social milieu — small-village dwellers of the upper middle classes, who have to keep up appearances and whose lives are tiny little circles always consisting of the same people, with whom one has to coexist or else move away. The actual conflicts here are so hard-fought precisely because, as is often said of academia, the stakes are so small. Here the trophies are the sexual favours of a poisonous, acquisitive, and bored woman, and the catching of a well-known fish (yes, really), the Old ‘Un, that has tempted anglers for years. Two different things that work together oddly well to produce a fine mystery, with some interesting forensic bits about a kind of “fingerprint analysis” of fish scales.

2. Colour Scheme (1943)

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Again, interesting characters against an interesting background makes for an interesting novel, and the fact that the espionage plot that underlies it is a bit creaky is made up for by the realization that it’s not all that important to the novel. Here is a gruesome murder — the victim encounters a volcanic fumarole in rural New Zealand that is offered as an amenity at a gauche and mawkish health spa. This dubious resort plays host to a Shakepearean actor on holiday with his assistant, and various guests who might be associated with WWII Axis submarines and coded messages. One of these visitors turns out to be Inspector Alleyn, incognito for most of the novel, who clears away the awkward romance plot and various petty machinations to bring home the murder. A large part of what makes this novel so fascinating is its setting; you truly believe that this is what rural New Zealand was like during wartime, and for once Marsh allows her writing skills to take pride of place in beautiful descriptive writing to show us the landscape and the magnificent wildness of the area.

1. Overture to Death (1939)

UnknownIt’s possible that this Ngaio Marsh novel, for me, has something that attracts me that is entirely idiosyncratic. I can’t say why it has remained clear in my mind since I first read it, perhaps 30 years ago. It’s a small story of a rural murder in a tiny village. There are only a few characters available for the role of murderer. The story hook is superb; who among us can put down a novel where a childish prank (of firing a water pistol when a certain piano chord is struck) has its stakes heightened when someone adds a real pistol to the mix? Not me. But I think what makes this the best Marsh novel for me is that the mystery and the background are perfectly integrated. This doesn’t always happen; in other novels, Marsh has been known to wedge irrelevant stuff in just to keep the action moving right along, and calls people by silly names just to pique the reader’s interest. In this book the meshing is perfect; there is a tiny observation made by one of the characters about another that you think is adding to characterization, but it’s actually a key clue and fools the reader beautifully. And, without giving too much away, this murderer is believable in word and deed.

My five least favourite Ngaio Marsh novels

Again, in reverse numerical order.

5. Tied Up In Tinsel (1972)

9780515060157-us-300I know this one will be done to death over the Christmas season, because of its Christmas theme; all I can say is, if this is what I’m getting for Christmas, I’ll take the lump of coal. The idea of a wealthy man getting his servants in the way described here is not only ridiculous but patronizing and oppressive; the servants themselves are vulgar cardboard conceptions (especially the gay cook, a repellent caricature). Uncle Flea and Aunt Bed are forgettable creatures whose funny names are one of Marsh’s worst writing habits (viz., Tinkerton and Giggle elsewhere). There’s a young actress who is characterized as seemingly everything that Marsh hates about “modern theatre”, and it just makes the writer look like a fuddy-duddy. The plot is completely obvious, if you’re paying attention, and the murderer’s identity is not a surprise to anyone who’s read Artists in Crime. So the plot is silly, the characters are silly, and nothing happens in Act II. Even Troy Alleyn, uncharacteristically on hand to provide first-person narration for Act I, is wasted here. The murderer is revealed, apparently, because Marsh realized she’d reached her word count; nothing is stopping her from ending this about page 120 except that, and Act II is so thoroughly dead that it took me three tries to make it through this novel. Trust me — there are better Christmas mysteries if you need one.

4. Last Ditch (1977)

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I’ve had my say about this novel before; it’s #7 on my list of Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read.  (The review is here.) It’s an ugly little novel about squalid and repellent people and it’s hard to say who is more unpleasant, the putative drug smugglers or the aristocrats. And I think this is the novel in which Marsh gives full license to an unpleasant part of her writing life. My theory is that Marsh created Troy Alleyn so that she could fantasize about being married to “Handsome” Alleyn of the CID; not content with that, she created Handsome’s son Ricky, who was apparently created to fall in love with older women and give Ms. Marsh a thrill.  There are a couple of other characters in her oeuvre who seem designed as wish-fulfillment boyfriends for an older woman, notably the interchangeable male protagonists of Killer Dolphin and the ghastly Mr. Gardener, the gardener, in Grave Mistake (Marsh as Lady Chatterly) but Ricky Alleyn is just too awful to bear. This book is devoted to his wonderfulness and you may need an insulin shot before you finish it. The murder plot is silly and the drug smuggling plot is absolutely, completely ridiculous. And Ricky Alleyn to me seems to be so deeply buried in the closet that he is in danger of becoming a garment bag — entirely unbeknownst to his creator.

3. Surfeit of Lampreys (1940)

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Let’s get this over with — you probably like this novel a lot and I don’t like it at all.  There, I’ve said it. Apparently I am a curmudgeon, because I do not think the Lamprey family is charming and zany and madcap and devil-may-care; I think they are loathsome and awful. “But, Noah, you love Phoebe Atwood Taylor and other writers about zany individualistic iconoclasts!” Yes, I do. But to me the Lampreys (who become the Pharamonds in Last Ditch) are wastrels and parasites. They spend their days thinking about how to get away with maintaining their lavish lifestyle at the expense of their wealthier and more diligent relatives. When you do a weird Maori haka on the docks of London to welcome your New Zealand friend, you’re not being charming, you’re just an attention-seeking show-off, and I don’t want to be near you. This book seems like Marsh is reminiscing about being a provincial little sparrow impressed by a glittering and meretricious social set that is ultimately cold and empty, except that she never realized it. Nostalgie de la boue, except that there’s no boue, just glitter and a broken expensive vase. And being around these people for longer than an hour — my lord, it’s like they’re all on coke and never run out of supply. The murder here is unnecessarily horrific and violent; a meat skewer through the eye that nails an elderly peer to the wall of an elevator. The sub-plot about black magic is apparently based on five minutes’ research about Hand of Glory, and is unbelievable. The murderer is so faceless that I defy anyone to give a physical description a week after closing the book. And there is one telling moment at the end that sums it all up for me. After teetering on the brink of complete bankruptcy for weeks and months, the Lampreys finally inherit some money and seem safe … except the matriarch then starts making plans for a little getaway in Monte Carlo, and redecorating their new home, and and and.  It makes me wish ever so slightly for the days of the tumbril and guillotine.

2.The Nursing-Home Murder (1935)

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This is Marsh’s third novel and I’ve always disliked it a lot. This is partly because it was written within an antique tradition that seems to cross the traditional puzzle mystery with political hugger-mugger at the Highest Levels, rather like E. Phillips Oppenheim collaborating with Agatha Christie. In fact this seems to be a book that relies on politics for its tensions, except that the author doesn’t really understand politics. So she creates cardboard characters with lofty titles and makes them unpleasant and immoral. I have seen this done well by authors who actually understand politics, but here … well, there’s a nurse who is a “bolshie” — Bolshevik, and I recommend looking it up, since it doesn’t seem clear to me that Marsh actually knew what she was putting into the mouth of this character. The effect is of someone who doesn’t know exactly why she wants political change, she just does, but I can’t believe she knows what she’s talking about — and neither does Marsh, it seems. The murderer’s motivation is ridiculous to the modern reader and I am pretty sure that it would have been so to someone who’d bought the first edition; I don’t believe it and it doesn’t hang together. I’m barely willing to believe that my lack of understanding is because I wasn’t alive in 1935 and don’t understand the politics involved — but in that case, no one ever will and we can just shelve this book altogether. Cardboard characters, ridiculous plot, and misunderstood politics; Christianna Brand did this milieu a lot better in Green For Danger and made us laugh too.

1. Singing in the Shrouds (1958)

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SPOILER ALERT: You may find out more than you wish about the ending of this volume AND of Christianna Brand’s Heads You Lose.  I haven’t named names and have given few clues, but be warned out of an excess of caution.

I expect by now you might be wondering what it is about this particular novel that has drawn (perhaps even merited) my particular disapproval. Well, as I said above, part of this is idiosyncratic. This and one other mystery — Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand — have the most annoying ending in detective fiction, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not worried that I will be spoiling anything for you here, especially, although I’ll speak here in general terms. The murderer is revealed, shortly before the end of the book, to be a person with some sort of “split personality” disorder such that half of them is sane and half is crazy, and neither is aware that the other is around. Believe me, there is no chance that you can identify a murderer who isn’t really aware that they have committed the murder in the first place. What this means in practical terms is that the murderer can be any character in the book because the reasoning underlying the crime is insane, and so any ridiculous combination of events can have eventuated. It’s the mystery equivalent of “Suddenly they were all run over by a truck and died” as the final chapter, and I get very angry when I encounter it. It’s insulting to a reader who is prepared to invest thought into the ending of a book before the ending is reached and it’s just a big cheat. So that’s what happened here. Added to which, this story is psychologically ridiculous. Essentially, in order to commit murder, the insane personality of the murderer requires the presence of three separate circumstances. When those three items show up at the same place and time, at precisely ten-day intervals, the Killer’s Trifecta is attained and the nearest young woman gets strangled. But that’s just ridiculous in realistic terms. Marsh just made up some foofaraw about how mental illness works and used it to justify a very silly plot that depends upon, literally, coincidence. I can accept a Golden Age novel like this if it’s from 1935, not 1958. I mean, good heavens, The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis came out in 1948; 1958 is not the psychological Dark Ages in terms of general knowledge.

And then the characters on this closed-circle cruise ship are horrible caricatures, every one. First in the offensiveness stakes is a sissified steward whose function in the novel is to dress up like one of the female passengers in order to be brutally murdered — that and provoke a few bitchy remarks about how gay he is. Dennis doesn’t appear to have had a last name, he’s just there to be “a queer steward” (I quote Alleyn) and die. There is a pair of married Provincial Oafs straight out of BBC Light Comedy of 1955; there is a Famous Drunk; there is a Young Couple in the Throes of New Love, a favourite of Marsh’s repertoire. And there is the ghastly female who plays a primary role in the activities, the vivacious and sexually available harridan — femme fatale — Mrs. Dillington-Blick. There is a Middle-Aged Prissy Guy and two Serious Religious People because Marsh needed to get a few words in about sin and insanity. Half of this characterization is just for convenience — comic relief, people to look vaguely guilty. And quite a bit of the other half is Marsh exhibiting some unconscious but moderately clear prejudices against effeminate gay men and sexually active middle-aged straight women. It’s distasteful and grubby.

So, horrible murder plot, ghastly awful characterization, and a dollop of nasty prejudice add up for me to the Ngaio Marsh novel that it will be least likely to be re-read by me in a hurry. If ever.

In closing

I will conclude by saying here, before people start to pour invective at me in the comments section ;-) that in case it’s not clear from my approach, I think Ngaio Marsh is an extremely significant figure in the history of detective fiction. She has remained pretty much constantly in print since the invention of paperbacks (1939 in North America) and that is a privilege afforded to only a few writers. I’ve read every piece of fiction she ever wrote — at least twice. I wouldn’t describe myself as a huge fan, but I think I can honestly recommend that you read all these books, even the ones I dislike. For one thing, taking in the sweep of the full 34 novels will be a worthwhile exercise in diligence, especially if you read them as I recommend, in chronological order. You’ll learn a lot about the social history of middle-class England (not so much about the aristos, although she tried). There’s some fine writing, especially about theatre people and New Zealand, and occasionally her various skills come together with a very satisfying click. And she’s famous for a reason.

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Where do we go from here?

The Tuesday Night Bloggers

A clever logo produced by group member Bev Hankins.

About a month ago, The Tuesday Night Bloggers (TNB) began as a kind of impromptu celebration of all things Agatha Christie to celebrate her 125th birthday. (I’m including this explanation for people who aren’t members of our mutual Facebook group, Golden Age Detection. If you have a sincere interest in Golden Age mysteries, you’re welcome to join us here. Well-informed and friendly people, a good time is had by all, and remarkably close to zero fistfights.) Essentially seven members of this Facebook group decided that they were going to post something in their own blogs about Agatha Christie every Tuesday for what turned out to be a little more than the month of October, 2015. Yes, we’re still doing it. I’ve personally had fun working to a tighter deadline than “whenever”, and it encouraged me to find interesting things to present that could be explained in 500 words or so. Which, as you know, for me is barely a clearing of the throat ;-)

dc9f2677eTuesday Night Bloggers (alphabetically by last name;the blog’s name links to the blog)

In conversation with a couple of my fellow TNB bloggers, I’ve learned that they are attracting a new and improved readership as a result of these Christie posts, as have I. Apparently people come for the Christie and look around for the Golden Age mystery, I guess, and welcome aboard! So I was wondering what would happen if we kept up the frequency but changed the topic a little bit … and we’re about to find out.

roundtableThe seven bloggers in Tuesday Night Bloggers have come to an agreement that, provisionally at least, we’re going to keep posting on Tuesdays but we’re going to change the topic once a month. We’re going to talk about a different Golden Age writer for a month of Tuesdays, and hope that our new readers are as interested in the other major names as they have been in Agatha Christie.

Personally I think this is going to work best if we focus on the major writers — as I put it, writers with a large number of novels that have been printed in a large number of editions. My TNB friends are all all aware of mystery writers whose work is rare and expensive, and when we find rare and expensive novels that we enjoyed or understood, I believe we’ll continue to bring you our opinions. (E.C.R. Lorac and Miles Burton are the literary equivalent of $500/bottle Scotch!)  In the meantime there are a bunch of Golden Age writers whose names many people will recognize and whose books are abundantly available at libraries and bookstores, and I think our breadth of information can shed light on these writers in a way that will interest people who may only be glancingly familiar with their work, or even people very familiar with their output. If you’ve read two Ngaio Marsh novels, well, we’ve frequently read all 29, and we have reasons why we like our favourites that we’ll share with you. I’m hoping this will encourage more people to share our pleasure in Golden Age mysteries.

sdc13504So here’s the list of suggested topics for a year.

  • October: Agatha Christie
  • November: Ellery Queen
  • December: Ngaio Marsh
  • January: Rex Stout
  • February: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • March: John Dickson Carr
  • April: Phoebe Atwood Taylor
  • May: Erle Stanley Gardner
  • June: Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • July: Arthur Upfield
  • August: Patricia Wentworth
  • September: S. S. Van Dine

Believe me, I’m open to changing this list, any part of it or any name on it. (I alternated males and females.) And I know that the TNB would join me in welcoming any blogger with an interest in Golden Age mysteries to add his/her blog to this list, even if — especially if — they’re not members of our Facebook group. There is no need to post every single Tuesday, for existing members or new ones; I’m sure we’d even welcome guests who merely wanted to contribute a single post from their own blog.

Your comments below are welcome and earnestly solicited. I have shamelessly swiped the logo that Bev Hankins designed for the group since I like it better than mine (and I will now retire my variant terminology for this effort of Tuesday Club Murders); thank you Bev!

 

 

Men Die At Cyprus Lodge, by John Rhode (1943)

3034156528WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book,although the identity of the murderer and other significant details are not revealed. This book is very rare and it is possible that you may never see a copy in your lifetime; you may feel that information about a book you’ll never be able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

The little village of Troutwich is crowded with war workers connected with a training base on its outskirts, but no one ever seems to want to rent Cyprus Lodge until Colonel and Mrs. Guestwick, bombed-out Londoners, find it suitable. The rumours of ghosts are nonsense, of course, everyone agrees. A middle-aged pork butcher died there in the last century, but people who report hearing the jingling of the coins in his pockets or the sound of his wooden garden clogs echoing off the tiled floor are considered, at least for public consumption, to be delusional. The house’s history includes having been used as a house of ill repute, at least until the police shut it down, and then a homeopathic doctor took the place and lasted two years — until he was found dead in the dining room, poisoned by taking aconite. He wasn’t well known in the village, and it’s considered to have been an unexplained suicide.

As the Colonel and his household are about to move in, Troutwich is receiving official scrutiny because there appears to be enemy espionage going on in the village; events at what is hinted to be more than a simple training camp are being passed to the enemy on a regular basis. Series detective Jimmy Waghorn (here using the pseudonym James Walters and purporting to be from the Ministry of Coordination) comes to investigate the espionage, and stands by as the local constabulary look through the empty house and find nothing.

4740105709However, local squire Sir Philip Briningham has made a hobby of investigating haunted houses. When the Guestwicks and their servants report hearing the ghostly clogs and jingling coins, they think it’s some kind of joke. But when a mysterious voice says “Beware of the Monk’s Hood,” they seek official help. Sir Philip is asked to take a hand and is anxious to assist with the local haunted house. Monkshood, the officials know, is the source plant for aconite, so perhaps this has something to do with the homeopath’s suicide. Sir Philip determines that he’ll spend the night in the house alone. When he does so, all the spooky effects obligingly appear, but in the light of day, he and the officials realize that the production of the effects appears to be connected with a sealed-off cupboard. A small group assembles to open the cupboard and, sure enough, the investigators discover a mysterious panel which, when opened, reveals a grinning skull. As Sir Philip reaches in and pulls on the skull to remove it, a group of sharp objects fall from the top of the recess. One of them stabs Sir Philip in the wrist — and he dies almost immediately of aconite poisoning.

The modern reader will, of course, recognize the basic Scooby-Doo plot; someone is creating these supernatural effects for a purpose, and another plot twist has generated the underlying motive. With the occasional assistance of Dr. Priestley and Superintendent Hanslet, Jimmy Waghorn investigates the history of the house and many of the inhabitants of the village, including local shopkeepers and the late Sir Philip’s family. Then there’s another murder using aconite in the vicinity of the spooky old house. Although Jimmy gets it wrong, events unfold in such a way that the true engineer of the plot is revealed in a surprising conclusion. In the final chapter, the senior series detective Dr. Priestley explains why his occasional comments were misinterpreted and tells Jimmy why he should have brought the crimes home to the real criminal.

2759Why is this worth reading?

Recently I remarked that John Rhode (a pseudonym of Major Cecil Street, who also published extensively as Miles Burton) and E. C. R. Lorac were the two Golden Age detective writers most unjustly overlooked by modern-day publishers, and a comprehensive reprinting is certainly in order. Both have very large backlists — essential to the publisher who wishes to entice a paperback audience with a large plot of undiscovered new ground. Major Street published four novels in 1943 alone and more than 140 titles in total; an astonishingly large body of work.

51XIWgKNgEL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My friend Curtis Evans, whose Passing Tramp blog is essential reading for the Golden Age of Detection aficionado, devoted a huge amount of work and thought to Maj. Street’s writing in his excellent Masters of the ‘Humdrum’ Mystery; if you really want to know everything there is to know about John Rhode, both the man and his work, that volume is the place to start and probably finish. Click on the title in the previous sentence to buy a copy on Amazon. But just to hit the high spots; Julian Symons, in his volume (Bloody Murder) looking at the history of detective fiction, classified certain early writers as “Humdrums” — because their focus was the puzzle plot, rather than meeting Symons’ preference for “stylish writing and explorations of character, setting and theme”. In 1972 when first published, Symons’ opinion led critical thought. However, today the wheel has spun and many critics and literary historians like Curt Evans are today finding that John Rhode and the rest of the Humdrums did precisely what they set out to do and did it well.  We are now learning that Symons may not have delved very deeply into a school of writing that he simply didn’t like, and that there is plenty of interest in these books about the social context against which they are set, and even the occasional piece of artistic writing. If you’re interested in the Golden Age of Detection, John Rhode is certainly worth investigating.

That being said, this novel is not excellent but merely competent and intelligent. I think my readers will agree that the story hook is very strong. Ghostly hugger-mugger in a spooky house is music to the ears of the GAD aficionado, since we all know that the detectives will ultimately reveal that a nefarious character has been producing supernatural effects in order to keep people away from some sort of criminal activity. Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and the rest of the Mystery Machine gang solved that crime many times, unmasking kindly old storekeeper Mr. Hooper as the Glowing Ghost who was trying to keep the uranium mine all to himself, or whatever. The stakes here are heightened by the fact that nosy people don’t just run away screaming and phone Daphne and Velma for help, they fall down dead from aconite poisoning.  When Sir Philip exposes the fakery but dies in the process, the reader’s attention is firmly locked in place; this unexpected development kicks the interest up a notch.

That’s where everything pretty much grinds to a halt, though. Jimmy Waghorn investigates, certainly, and meets a wide range of characters connected with the late Sir Philip and the town’s tradespeople and police officers. We learn the details of how information is casually mentioned in the local pub by off-duty servicemen, and Jimmy realizes — or is told by higher authorities — that the information must be being transmitted somehow to a person who takes it to Ireland, whereupon it makes its way to Germany. (We never quite get the details of this; the author merely invokes “security” and saves himself the trouble of thinking something up.) But nothing much really happens until a second murder, and Jimmy Waghorn is still completely baffled. The astute reader, meanwhile, testing his/her wits against those of the investigators, will have realized the obvious investigatory course for the officials, which is twofold. They should follow anyone who sets foot anywhere near Cyprus Lodge and investigate them intensively, and meanwhile they should be looking into the history of everyone who’s had anything to do with the place since the death of the original pork butcher. Had they done so, this book would have been much more brief and simple.

2760Apparently the lack of investigatory power has to do with the war, of course. And this book has a constant element of the war as a background — easy to understand for a book that was published in 1943. The details range from small to large. For instance, one hard-working shopkeeper re-uses a piece of glass and constructs a frame for it out of scrap wood, to replace the smashed window of his tobacco shop, because a large pane of glass simply cannot be had in wartime England. A pub keeper mentions that although his customer base is thriving due to the nearby training base, he isn’t profiting unduly because he’s only allowed a certain amount of beer per month to serve all his customers, and so he must balance the needs of the soldiers against those of his long-time customers.  The ubiquitous blackout curtains prevent people from seeing any mysterious figures moving around in the dead of night. And everyone accepts the presence of Jimmy Waghorn because he says he’s with the Ministry of Coordination; if the Ministry were to open a small facility in Troutwich, Cyprus Lodge would be ideal, and so he can poke through the house to his heart’s content. There is a secondary plot strand, wherein the late Sir Philip’s relatives are suspects because they inherit his estate.  The heir is maintaining his manor as an open house for the officer class of the training base because his father would have wanted it that way (and, of course, this alerts the reader to the possibility that the espionage originates in the manor house as the officers play billiards and casually talk about the day’s events).

But the espionage plot has the defects of its virtues. If the war permeates the fabric of the village to such an extent, then the information leaks must be more crucial; surely they can spare a couple of police officers from patrolling for cracks of light from blackout curtains to keep an eye on people surreptitiously dodging in and out of Cyprus Lodge. And if the appropriate Ministry truly wanted to find out the trail of the information leaks, they surely would have asked Dr. Priestley to take a more active role, rather than merely bringing in Jimmy Waghorn, a complete doofus, on a part-time basis. (At one point near the finale, Jimmy actually thinks casually that if he runs into the individual who turns out to be the murderer in the course of some late-night investigations, he’s going to take that person into his confidence so that the real murderer can be identified. D’oh!) Either the espionage is important or it’s not. For the purposes of keeping the novel afloat, it seems to be only important so far as it baffles Jimmy and forms the background for Act II up to the midpoint of Act III. The way Dr. Priestley talks in the final chapter, he would have solved the murders in about 20 minutes after he arrived, by focusing official attention on the correct aspects of everyone’s history and background. I agree, and that just points out that Act II and most of Act III for this novel are padded like a Canadian winter jacket.

This is not a terrible idea, considering that John Rhode is a writer who knows how to hold an audience. The characterization is subtle but good. Particularly noteworthy is a local tobacconist  who’s a member of a religious cult concerned with the Vision of the Great Prophet. Such cults are commonplace in GAD novels (off the top of my head, I can think of novels by Ngaio Marsh, Elizabeth Daly, Ellery Queen and Anthony Boucher that feature some variation on the theme) and this one is just as loony-tunes as the rest. The tobacconist, however, is the only really distinctive character; everyone else is average and everyday, going about their daily business and contributing to the war effort as best they can. But John Rhode was good at portraying this kind of person, especially military men. They may be reserved in demeanour, but they are consistent, honourable and stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen. Oddly, there are almost no female characters in this novel. I haven’t managed to read enough of Rhode’s work to know if this is a commonplace thing or unusual, but it’s worth noting. Dr. Priestley himself is very nearly completely offstage for the entire novel, popping up a couple of times to say enigmatic things and then to be a complete pain in the ass in the final chapter, waggling his finger and saying, tsk, tsk, you should have listened to me more carefully. Apparently Rhode thinks we know him sufficiently well from other novels; I didn’t, but that’s what seems to be being conveyed here.

I think Rhode’s real skill in this novel is with dialogue, which is not something that often calls itself to my attention. There are subtle differences in the language used by various characters that let you know from what stratum of society they come; really well done here. Other writers, particularly Dorothy L. Sayers, make the speech of members of the lower classes that of illiterate bumpkins with what a dear friend of mine, the late mystery writer Greg Kramer, used to call “ha’penny-tuppenny fortnight come Michaelmas” dialogue. But here the speech patterns of everyone concerned are not all that different. Shopkeepers, indeed, seem upwardly mobile — as though they’re trying to improve themselves — and the lords of the manors are more egalitarian. Perhaps this is a wartime thing, and it makes analysis difficult, but it’s more true to life, I think.

For the pleasure of the reading public, particularly my friends who enjoy good Golden Age of Detection work, I certainly hope John Rhode comes back into print soon. I have the feeling that if it were possible for me to read 60 or 70 of his novels, it may well be that I would draw different conclusions about the excellence of this particular volume. With what little I know, and my experience with this kind of novel, I think I’d give this one a B+ and look for better work from the same author.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada #274; I used my own copy of this book, in much better condition, as the basis for this review. Although I’ve always had a certain fondness for the “green ghost” Crime club edition pictured here, the CWCC edition is delightfully — well, I think the word is “lurid”. The background is a greyish shade of mustard, which makes the black/green cypress trees and touches of dusty brick red in the house stand out. The publishers wanted this to scream off the shelves, and it certainly does. My own copy is in Very Good condition, holding together physically better than is often the case with CWCC books, and if I were to sell it — which I have no plans to do, since it’s so scarce — I think I’d price it at $60 to $75.

Of the nine copies today available on ABEBooks, the cheapest is an ex-library copy of CWCC #274 at $28 plus shipping, fit only for reading or filling a hole in a run of John Rhode, and a first edition in jacket will set you back more than $600. Like so much of Rhode, this is a rare and expensive book in any condition and any edition.

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?

24340188

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.

1077037519

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.