The Devil at Saxon Wall, by Gladys Mitchell (1935): A few comments

51mQ+0mR7gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_At Hallowe’en of this year, my blogfriend Jamie Bernthal-Hooker wrote a piece on The Devil at Saxon Wall (in his excellent blog, Sign of the Crimes, which I recommend to your continued attention) and did me the honour of quoting me extensively in the process. Unfortunately this was, as my regular readers are both aware 😉 in the context of me not enjoying Gladys Mitchell’s writing very much at all and making the decision to put approximately 80 of her e-books into cold storage. Jamie’s opinion of Gladys Mitchell’s writing is much more favourable than mine.

153ff56In fact, it seems as though everyone with any literary taste and scholarship enjoys Gladys Mitchell more than I do, and in particular The Devil at Saxon Wall. Nick Fuller calls it “Gladys Mitchell’s triumph” in a superb in-depth analysis found here; another esteemed blogger and podcaster, Les Blatt, calls it “marvellous” here. Even the comments on Amazon and Goodreads are generally favourable. Critically speaking, I’m a lonely little onion in the petunia patch.

coverAt the end of his analysis, Jamie wonders what my “thoughts were on this one”. And this left me in a kind of ethical bind. I had a copy at hand, it was certainly no trouble to pick it up and read it. But I had already said that I was prepared to set aside Gladys Mitchell and not continue to flog a horse that my readers had already seen me butcher in front of them. I know you get it — as I said, and as Jamie quoted, “There’s something about Gladys Mitchell, or me, and the two of us are immiscible. I have decided to do you all the favour of not beating the topic to death in a vain attempt to keep my promise …”. That’s simply it. I admit it’s fun to be rude and acerbic about novels I don’t enjoy, and I am told my readers enjoy this process, but (a) I have no wish to pursue Gladys Mitchell like the Avenging Furies, and (b) I greatly suspect that, given the number of intelligent analysts and eminent critics who DO enjoy her work more than I do, I’d be making a fool of myself in the process.

witches-the-1966-002-ceremonial-actSo I read the damn book, and I didn’t enjoy it at all, and that’s more or less all you’re going to hear on the topic from me. But I did give it a reasonable amount of thought as to why I didn’t enjoy it, and I actually had an insight or two that I thought was worth sharing. And I will try to keep the acerbity to a minimum. I still think if you want better analysis of Mitchell’s strengths you should go elsewhere, and I’ve given you some links, but I thought I had something original to offer below that has little to do with my personal feelings.

33c62763d1dc7b56e24b46676e54bb32--hard-times-in-new-yorkThe Devil at Saxon Wall is set in a tiny village in Hampshire which is, as Nick Fuller puts it, “horribly rustic”. It’s a story about how the villagers and the vicar are coming into conflict against the background of a few different issues; one is the death of a young woman after childbirth, possibly at the hands of her insane husband; another is what has happened to the child of that marriage; and there’s quite a bit about witchcraft and local superstition and widespread drought. All the villagers are unpleasant (verging on downright evil), speak a local dialect that is quite difficult to understand, are constantly doing unusual things for incomprehensible reasons, and lying. Lying, lying, lying, lying.  They lie about everything that happens around them, constantly and consistently, and it is up to series detective Mrs. Bradley to untangle the lies and figure out what has happened, which she does and solves a lot of problems. At the end, the heavens pour with rain and end the drought.

UnknownThe word that kept coming into my head as I read this book was “squalid”. To quote a dictionary, “(of a place) extremely dirty and unpleasant, especially as a result of poverty and neglect; showing or involving a contemptible lack of moral standards”. The squalid village of Saxon Wall is filled with squalid people doing squalid things. Now, I did say I wouldn’t comment much about the actual book. But in view of my previous remarks about the laudable sexual forthrightness of Mitchell at a time when her peers wouldn’t countenance sexuality in a mystery, I have to note that at one point one of the female villagers comes to the narrator’s bedroom dressed only in a raincoat and boots and offers herself to him; hell, she attacks him and he has to fight her off. And this is not the merely sexual act that it seems, but connected with an alibi and yet another tangle of lies. The encounter is unpleasant to contemplate and mercifully not consummated, but I have to say, Mitchell Went There.  Nevertheless, it is squalid in the extreme.

d8731889042209b597375766c41444341587343The small insight that I had, though, came after I closed the book and tried to ruminate on why I hadn’t enjoyed this book very much at all. Where was this book coming from in the context of 1935? Why did Mitchell want to write about these squalid villagers; what need did she feel she was meeting by doing so? Nick Fuller remarks that this book was written as “the result of hearing a lecture on witchcraft by Helen Simpson (to whom the book is dedicated)”, and I’ll buy that. But why was Helen Simpson, a detective novelist in her own right, lecturing about witchcraft? And why did Gladys Mitchell think that the public would be entertained by a mystery set against a background of rural witchcraft with strong overtones of sexuality and low intelligence?

the-witch-cult-in-western-europeI was aware that many novelists at the time had been influenced by a very popular book called The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, by archaeologist Margaret Murray, published in 1921, whose Wikipedia biography is found here. Essentially and briefly, this volume talked about the idea that European witches had been persecuted for their religious beliefs in a pagan religious tradition that is not 100% modern Wicca, but fairly close. Murray also published a follow-up volume in 1933, The God of the Witches, in which

9780006133933-us-300she tried to describe “the Old Religion” in more positive and everyday terms. Significantly, Murray wrote the entry on witchcraft for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and “used the opportunity to propagate her own witch-cult theory”. Apparently academic reviewers believed that she had “distorted and misinterpreted the contemporary records that she was using” but the book had a great deal of influence and I believe Mitchell would have been very familiar with it. Other mystery writers were influenced by it too, notably Ngaio Marsh in Off With His Head.

happy-halloween-sexy-witches-edition-L-c3tfzLThe general zeitgeist of the times was interested in witchcraft as the Old Religion and it seems to me to contribute to the background of The Devil at Saxon Wall. But that doesn’t explain the entirety of the novel to me, merely a portion of it. Where was all this squalor coming from?

eugenicsIt did seem likely that Mitchell’s interest in eugenics, another component of the cultural zeitgeist that was more prominent in 1935 than today, had something to do with it. There are elliptical mentions of the inbreeding that takes place in small villages such as Saxon Wall; to be fair, though, the exact parentage of a particular individual is a major question of the novel and so it’s not unrealistic that the topic should be mentioned. I do think there’s an undercurrent of Mitchell suggesting that inbreeding contributes to the village being full of mendacious and sexually liberated scoundrels with no moral fibre, but even my dislike for the adherents of eugenics wouldn’t allow me to find direct references in the text where none seem to exist.  (Readers, feel free to prove me wrong, please. Eugenics needs to be exposed to the light of day as being a horrible idea and I’m not sure I did a really effective search.)

3cff6f783a87505ab94087d10ceaedc2.jpgWhat finally struck me was the thought that The Devil at Saxon Wall was like a peculiar British take on a kind of American genre that has now passed entirely out of fashion; the “hillbilly novel”. And this started to interest me. The concept of “hillbillies” as part of American culture is a long and complex one; it started as a way of describing the impoverished inhabitants of rural areas like Appalachia and the Ozarks and transmogrified into a media stereotype that changed its meaning as time went by.  In the late 1920s, “hillbilly music” was what we would now call “country music”; a fusion of folk songs with other genres like gospel and bluegrass. But the image of lazy, tobacco smoking, overall-wearing farmers clutching a jug of moonshine liquor labeled “XXX” concatenated through American media. Cartoons like “Li’l Abner” and radio and movie depictions of characters like “Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick” and the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys contributed to a simplistic cliche that audiences recognize to this day. You may not be surprised to know that Elvis Presley got his start as a “hillbilly singer”.

61mwW0gP6wL._SL500_SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I first encountered the hillbilly novel because one of its exemplars was in the well-known collectible paperback series known as Dell mapbacks; Their Ancient Grudge (which the casual reader could be excused for thinking is here titled “Hillbilly Feuding and Loving”, but read carefully, the blurb is disguised as the title) is mapback #435 from 1950. There was a tiny sub-genre of such novels as first-edition (and only edition) paperbacks in the 1950s. These had names like Swamp Hoyden, Backwoods Tramp

39550722-6932279231_088d37b82e_o1and Desire in the Ozarks and usually had as their subject matter a young woman of easy virtue who wanted desperately to get to the big city and would have sex with any man likely to get her there.  I think hillbilly novels were primarily meant as inexpensive erotica for the prurient male that, as a sub-genre, did not survive beyond about 1960. But there were an awful lot of them in the meantime, as paperback collectors can tell you; they can command huge prices as collectibles in today’s market.

beverly hillbilliesThere’s a mediaological excursion probably worth taking in tracing the history of the hillbilly through American culture, from early radio through to The Beverly Hillbillies and beyondbut it’s beyond the scope of these comments. I did want to go back to the origins of the hillbilly novel because I think I can see what might have been a direct connection to The Devil at Saxon Wall — the novels of Erskine Caldwell.

51Gx--vDakL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Tobacco Road (1932) is perhaps Caldwell’s most famous novel but God’s Little Acre (1933) is a close second, mostly because it was banned in Boston. Both volumes are filled with profanity, violence, and frank sexuality that makes them extremely unusual for their time; both volumes were runaway best-sellers, and God’s Little Acre sold more than 10 million copies. You can get plot summaries at the links in this paragraph. I think it’s fair to say that Caldwell pretty much invented the hillbilly novel; I remember remarking in my youth that it seemed as though the entire output of Signet as a paperback publisher seemed to consist of Caldwell’s hillbilly novels.

e2ab10f4194f427078de0faa526ccbe2Now, let me say right off the bat, I have zero evidence and zero chance of getting any to back up this theory. I just want to set it out there, like a temptingly planted pawn in the initial stages of a chess game, that Gladys Mitchell was influenced by these two novels that had such a great success in the years immediately before The Devil at Saxon Wall. I think these two novels had a lot to do with the rise of the hillbilly stereotype in American media. And I think it’s extremely likely that Gladys Mitchell would have been moving in literary and intellectual circles such that she would have had access to these novels to read (I understand they were hard to get in Britain, because of the explicit sexual content).

When I thought about this, it seemed to make sense. Gladys Mitchell wanted to write novels with fairly frank sexual content, as I’ve seen in the reasonably large sample of Mitchell titles I’ve managed to make it through. It’s clear that she was influenced by Helen Simpson’s lecture and I’ll venture to say it’s clear she was aware of and influenced by The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and its sequel; she wanted to write about rural witchcraft. I think it’s not out of the question to suggest that Mitchell wanted to write commercially successful novels and that by emulating certain aspects of Erskine Caldwell she could sell a lot of books. It was more difficult to get books with clearly sexual scenes published but there are many reasons for her to think that, once published, they would sell. Who knows what a researcher more competent (and interested) than myself might find by investigating Mitchell’s papers?

All I’m willing to assert is that the relationship between Mitchell’s work and Caldwell’s work is possible and not wildly unlikely. Your mileage may, of course, vary. I still didn’t enjoy the experience of reading The Devil at Saxon Wall but I hope to have contributed in a small way to the understanding of readers who like her work more than I do. I now intend to return to my intended silence on Mitchell’s work in general, unless provoked, and I leave her to your better judgment.


The Guardian pimps out the Golden Age of Detection

This morning I encountered an article from The Guardian written by one Sarah Hughes; you can find it here, and you may want to skim it before you continue (if you care to continue, that is). At first I was merely angry, because my initial reaction was that Hughes was an uncritical cheerleader who merely absorbed what she’d been told by publicity people and regurgitated it into a cheerful puff piece. Then I started to think more clearly about what I had read.

Her thesis, such as it is, suggests that “Crime fiction is turning back the clock to its golden age with a host of books that pay homage to the genre’s grande dame, Agatha Christie, either intentionally or in spirit.”

Some points that this thesis, and the article in general, brought to mind:

  • 162499Sophie Hannah is not a good example of a writer who is “paying homage” to Agatha Christie. While I’m not prepared to go as far as others and say that she’s dug up Christie’s corpse and is assraping it in the public square in return for sacks of money and more celebrity (as you can probably tell, I’m not far from that opinion; my review of the first such continuation is here) , her two recent “continuations” of Hercule Poirot are more like examples of how NOT to pay homage to Agatha Christie. #2, Closed Casket, contains a fart joke. I rest my case.
  • “[R]eprints of 30s and 40s crime classics are continuing to sell well …” Well, first, that’s not the Golden Age; the Golden Age is the 20s and 30s. Second — prove it. That is, prove it without reference to publicity material from any major publisher which has a vested interest in making some people believe that they should get on the bandwagon and purchase reprints of crime classics because everyone else is. I don’t think the reprints are selling “well”; my sense is that, as I’ll discuss later, large publishers with a Golden Age backlist are generating profits where none were available before, but only slight profits. They’re merely selling well enough to repay the minuscule cost of keeping them available in electronic format.
  • The article goes into detail about a lot of new authors who have little or nothing to do with Golden Age mysteries. If, to quote the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury, a  series by one Plum Sykes is “subversive, wickedly funny and modern”; fine, but those things aren’t really the hallmarks of the Golden Age. The hallmark of the Golden Age is plotting — and not, as a HarperCollins editor suggests, that “the disciplines of the golden age … really centre around plot and character.” Since Golden Age writers specifically and deliberately eschewed characterization, that particular editor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There’s a lot of rubbish in this article about books that have no relationship to the Golden Age because they’re coming out soon, and that’s the actual point of this article; selling a few books that have nothing to do with the Golden Age.
  • I am sad to learn that “writer and theatre-maker Stella Duffy” has been hired to complete an unfinished novel by Ngaio Marsh. I’m not enormously familiar with Stella Duffy’s work, but she has written a couple of crime novels that I thought were well-written and interesting (see, I do occasionally read something written after I was born!); it’s not Duffy to whom I object. It’s the idea itself; that Ngaio Marsh is merely the latest mystery writer to be continued. If you are a publisher and you seriously think that Golden Age mysteries will sell in quantities that please you, then by all means commission one from a mystery writer.  I have a few friends I can recommend who are very knowledgeable. (Jeffrey Marks has a track record in fiction, wrote a book on how to market genre fiction, and is an acknowledged expert on the Golden Age. And he hits his deadlines.) Dressing up a corpse and having it wheeled around the bookstores by another author is starting to get tiresome. What I really think is that HarperCollins, despite its protestations, is only sure that it can sell books by an author whose name has a high recognition factor regardless of the fact that she happens to have been dead since 1982. And that is not the unalloyed confidence in the material they would have me believe they possess.

But I didn’t write this entirely to slag some silly under-informed writer for The Guardian for doing a puff piece; I actually used to take that paper, all the way to Western Canada, because it has a wonderful crossword puzzle, and I’ll let a few things slide for having received so much cruciverbal pleasure in the past. What I think is happening here is that Britain’s major publishers buy a lot of advertising space. While I would never dare suggest that they paid for this article — that is emphatically untrue, from what I know of The Guardian — I will say that major publishers are probably not unhappy to see a piece addressed to uninformed readers that suggests that those readers will be part of a hot literary trend if they are to buy something that says it’s a Golden Age mystery, and coincidentally here’s a couple of upcoming projects to put on your Christmas list. I get that. It’s part of how books are marketed these days. It should not be a surprise if people who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries are selling books by writers who know bugger-all about Golden Age mysteries to readers who, etc.  And they’re attaching the Agatha Christie/Golden Age label to such things in the same way that the Ngaio Marsh label is being attached to Stella Duffy’s next volume. It’s like the label “gluten-free!” on food that never contained gluten; not exactly untrue, but misleading.

You may be surprised that I think Sophie Hannah is quoted as actually having said something sharp and on the money.  I liked it so much, I’ll set it out for you:

“I think the resurgence in the popularity of golden age crime fiction is partly down to the fact that we do, at some level, like to have that satisfaction of having a story told to us in a very overtly story-like way,” she says. “Inherent in golden age crime writing is the message: ‘This is a great story and you will have fun reading it’.”

Now, that, as Lord Peter Wimsey once said, “absolutely whangs the nail over the crumpet.” It’s sort of the inside-out version of what I noted above, the well-known truism that Golden Age mysteries are all plot and not much characterization. People who like strong plots like Golden Age Mysteries. But Hannah here puts it in a way that is much more accessible to the average reader, and much more likely to actually SELL a few than me blethering on for many thousands of words about plot structure and social issues. “Oh,” says Brenda at W.H. Smith, “that famous writer said this kind of book will be fun. I think I’ll give one a try.” What this makes me think is that Sophie Hannah is an intelligent and competent writer who understands the Golden Age mystery, and would probably be able to write a really good one if she were not lumbered with the corpse of Hercule Poirot having to be front and centre. (And probably she could do without people like me making fun of her work; I bet she could write something that would appeal to my Golden Age sentiments and really sell like hotcakes at the same time. I look forward to that.)

I hope that sense of fun comes through in my appreciations of Golden Age mysteries, and I will be trying in the future to bring quite a bit more of that if it’s currently lacking. Thanks to Sophie Hannah for putting this idea in this way; it was something I needed in my toolkit. And it’s something with which my fellow aficionados will agree, I think.

Even James Prichard, Christie’s great-grandson, has something more intelligent to say than anything I’ve read from him lately.

“There’s a terrible tendency to see golden age crime as cosy crime, but I think it’s pretty evident that my great-grandmother found murder a serious and horrific business,” he says. “The reason that these books have lasted and that so many people still read or try to emulate them today is because the plots stand up. People enjoy the puzzle elements in them and they like the fact that you might feel a little uncomfortable, but never so uncomfortable that you can’t go on.”

Remarkable that for once he seems to have the right idea — the plots stand up.

murder_is_easyNow that I’ve followed the time-honoured tradition of a slam, then a bouquet, I’ll finish out the pattern with a closing slam or two. The Guardian chose to illustrate its understanding of how Golden Age mysteries are paid homage to with a photograph of Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple standing beside Benedict Cumberbatch “in an ITV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy“. How stupid and insensitive was THAT particular choice? As I’m sure my readers know, Miss Marple was not actually in Murder is Easy — she’s been wedged in there to get a few more viewers, because, you know, Agatha Christie apparently needs help to draw an audience. “Of course we respect Agatha Christie, except we’ll change her bestselling work around as we see fit, because the poor old dear didn’t understand the modern day.” Sounds more like assrape than homage to me.

My final observation has to do with one of the people quoted in this article. David Brawn is the “estates publisher at HarperCollins” who says this:

“One of the main reasons behind the sudden popularity of crime from this period is that modern publishing and new technology allows for shorter runs in printing, which means that we can now mine backlists that would previously have been unprofitable …”

In other words, they’re delightedly mining their own backlist for books where they don’t have to pay the heirs, for one reason or another, to bring in a few extra pence. The part that surprised me, though, is his title as “estates publisher”. There’s an article from The Bookseller here that talks about what that is and how it works. Honestly, you should read it. It sounds like half his job is disabusing literary heirs to a major oeuvre that their dead granny’s literary output deserves a full hardcover re-issue and a film deal, and the other half is encouraging literary heirs to a major oeuvre that they should slap a coat of lipstick and a sexy dress on their deceased granny and hire her out for the aforementioned assraping, with a chorus chanting “Now a major motion picture!”. The whole idea of having an “estates publisher” gives me the cold chills. You might feel the same way.





Sealed Room Murder, by Rupert Penny (1941)

sealroommurderIn a review from four years ago of another Penny mystery, found here, I’ve spoken of just how scarce and expensive the works of Rupert Penny have been, historically. His nine mysteries (one as by “Martin Tanner”) have all commanded immense prices in the booksellers’ marketplace; the one paperback I ever found, seen to the left, sells today for more than US$100. And the first editions are astronomical.

It’s hard to understand why, at this remove. Their high prices used to be based on scarcity, since there were so few copies of any Penny novel ever printed, and only seldom any paperback editions. Everyone was crazy to read them because they were so scarce. Now they’re all available from Ramble House in a POD edition in trade or hardcover formats. As a connoisseur of such scarcities, once I managed to acquire them … they just don’t seem to have the excellence one would expect. They’re a little bit off the wall and a little bit incompetent, simultaneously. This specific volume, however, does seem to have stood the test of time and may just be the best one.

WARNING: This post concerns a 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 novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

Douglas Merton is the nephew of the owner of a firm of private enquiry agents, and works for his uncle as what we would today call a private investigator. The firm is hired (in August, 1939, just before the outbreak of WWII) by the wealthy, unpleasant, and hugely overweight Mrs. Harriet Steele, for the purpose of finding out which of the unpleasant relatives in her household has been playing some rather nasty pranks upon her and her possessions. Mrs. Steele, we soon learn, was — many years and many, many pounds of avoirdupois ago — once the love object of Douglas Merton’s uncle when he was much younger and both were music hall performers. Hence the uncle’s willingness to take the case, although the firm’s focus is generally a more sedate insurance practice. Uncle Thomas is distinctly out of love with the 215-pound Harriet, but feels he owes her one from the days when he was a comedian and she was part of a roller-skating act.

The household consists of the widowed Mrs. Steele and her brother George, also a retired music hall performer, and the late Mr. Steele’s large group of relations; a mother and three sisters, one of whom is a widow with two adult children. What with a few servants, the list of possible suspects is nine people long. One of those nine has been doing unpleasant things like cutting a large hole in Mrs. Steele’s expensive mink coat, and pouring ink on a drawerful of expensive underthings. Merton’s job is to move into the unhappy household and find out who is doing these things and possibly why.

Because of that plot device so beloved of mystery writers, the strangely-conceived will of the late Mr. Steele, Mrs. Steele must provide room and board for all of her husband’s relations as long as they choose to live in her big old house. If Harriet dies, they split the deceased Mr. Steele’s large estate among themselves. If they leave, they lose their interest in the estate. It soon becomes apparent to Merton that Harriet hates her relatives and they return her hatred with compound interest, but no one can afford to leave. There’s a considerable amount of infighting among the unhappy family members also.

In fact, the plot goes into considerable detail about who hates whom and why, and their past histories, etc. The wicked pranks continue, including the defacement of some parquet flooring of which Harriet is very fond, and as a result she has had the lock on her bedroom door changed. Merton is not close to discovering the culprit; his investigations are more into the relationships among the family members, and he’s sidetracked by falling in love with Harriet’s beautiful young niece Linda.

2528One night, Merton and Linda are both decoyed down into the cellars, by forged notes purporting to be from each other; each is knocked unconscious and Harriet’s clothes are mostly removed. (I mention this because it is very unusual for the lurid Good Girl Art cover of a paperback of the period to be accurate to the story, as you can see at the head of this essay.) They spend the evening locked in the cellar and when they’re discovered in the morning, it’s to the news that Harriet has been stabbed to death the previous night by someone using enormous force. And, in a plot device so beloved of mystery readers, Harriet’s corpse is found inside her locked bedroom, all the keys of which are accounted for. It’s a classic locked-room mystery.

The murder itself is discovered at the 143-page mark of a 219-page book, but you can see it coming a mile away; the combination of the desire to inherit and the mutual acrimony that fills the household lead irresistibly to murder. Given that Merton can fill in Inspector Beale and his sidekick Tony Purdon more completely than any Scotland Yard detective can usually expect, the actual detection doesn’t take very long and the crime is solved, once Inspector Beale figures out how the locked-room mystery was constructed.

Why is this worth your time?

sealed-room-murderThis book will be of particular interest only to a few small groups of readers, and I can identify them for you easily. If you’re addicted to the classic “locked room mystery”, you may have already heard of this and tried to find it. The solution to this is exceptionally difficult, but scrupulously fairly clued within the novel.  Reading this novel will be pretty much essential to tick off your list of the most significant Golden Age locked room mysteries.

If you’re a fan of the Golden Age mystery in general, you may enjoy this; you won’t be ecstatic, but you will be amused. It has rather the flavour of a Ngaio Marsh novel; I say this because the focus is on the personalities of a group of unpleasant people trapped in a restricted setting, strung together with a mawkish and not especially believable love story, and Marsh has written that mystery more than once. (Overture to Death comes to mind.) It also reminded me of Marsh because there is a big sag in the novel as the author introduces the characters and their individual personalities and backgrounds, and the action more or less slows down to a crawl while the stage is set. Marsh is well-known, at least to me, for that problem of construction. However, unlike Marsh, the sag in Sealed Room Murder happens before the commission of the murder; in the traditional Act One/Two/Three structure of this novel, Act One is far too long, Act Two is uncharacteristically abbreviated, and Act Three is a mere 20 pages in which Inspector Beale Explains It All.  This is a contrast to Marsh and some of her contemporaries, where the murder happens early on and Act Two is long and drawn-out as the detective interviews all the suspects.  So the construction is not especially good, but at least it’s different than the usual run of such mysteries.

However, the fan of the classic Golden Age mystery will find everything here to delight the connoisseur of the form. There is a map of the house, and a couple of detailed maps of the locked bedroom; a chart of how and where various people’s possessions were lost or damaged, possibly by the prankster; and, in the book’s finale, no fewer than three diagrams showing exactly what was done and how. There is also the classic “Challenge to the Reader”; at a specific point, the author breaks the fourth wall and poses three questions to the reader. (My advice is that knowing the answers is not likely to help you very much; the first two, at least, are irrelevant to the determination of guilt. But you probably won’t be able to answer them unless you know howdunit.)

One of my strongest interests in Golden Age detective fiction these days is social history; I find that the most interesting thing in these novels for me these days is not so much whodunit, or as here howdunit, but how much it costs to bribe a housemaid (a “fiver”, which doesn’t sound like much but actually might be a couple of weeks’ wages for a servant), and what you wear when you are a 5’2″ 215-pound woman with lots of money, and not very good taste.

Penny has been accused elsewhere, and I’d certainly chime in on the pronouncement, of being a tone-deaf writer. He writes in complete English sentences, but his plots are always much more important to the narrative than his characterizations and his characters are often cardboard people doing ridiculous things to further a complicated plot. But he occasionally hits the characterization nail squarely on its head, as here:

“She was bulky, but not positively bulging. Her fair hair, its colour patently artificial, peeped out coyly from under her blue hat. Below her unbuttoned beaver coat was a white frock which drew attention to her heavy bosom by a series of irritating tucks and pleats. Her eyes were green, set rather deep and unpleasantly hard. She regarded you as if she were calculating the price of your honesty, but that may have been because she was short-sighted. Her lips were designed to minimize the fullness of her face, and vividly matched her enamelled fingernails; her hand felt sticky, and she exuded a noticeable scent of lilac.”

And a few lines later, in a delightful turn of phrase, “her voice a rich contralto erected upon a cockney subsoil.” Honestly, I had a clearer picture of the unpleasant Mrs. Steele than I have of the protagonists of many current cozy mysteries.

There’s another beautifully observed moment of female dress in a chapter very near the end. Merton sees a slatternly housemaid kneeling on some stairs and observes: “I couldn’t help but notice, with distaste, that she rolled her stockings in the American fashion so that they finished very little above the knee.” Okay, that one completely loses me — do English women roll them much higher, so that men cannot see the tops of them (or those mysterious objects, suspender-belts)? There’s a class-based hairsplitting going on here that I can’t grasp. But it shows that Penny was at least trying to display some accuracy in depicting some tiny point of “which classes wear which clothes when” that would be meaningful to his audience. Unless among women’s fiction of the period or assiduous social reconstruction, those sorts of distinctions are likely to never be available to the modern audience.

Yes, Penny may legitimately be thought of as being a tone-deaf writer, mostly because his plots are just so damned improbable. The characters must act in ridiculous ways, motivated in the most absurd ways, because they have to act to make the mechanics of this plot work. I won’t give you any of the details of what happens here in a puzzle sense, because that is the main pleasure of the novel for most of its consumers, but really of all the ways that human ingenuity could kill this unpleasant lady and hope to get away with it, the actual method used here is … insane. There is no way that sensible humans put together things in this way. And I can’t say if it’s only a characteristic of the two books by this author that I’ve looked at in depth, but in both plot structures there is a repeating element whereby the plot’s complexity is doubled by the chance actions of a non-murderous character. That has a strong odour of what I call “mystery cement” — put in to make things harder. You can’t make believable characters, or even remotely believable characters, by having them act like maniacs to make the plot twists come off.

But I must say there is some hellishly complicated plotting here. All the necessary elements are presented to the reader, some more subtly than others. (Believe it or not, there’s a secondary one in the description of Harriet quoted above; she’s short-sighted.) I’m not sure if the murder plot would actually work the way it’s described, but it’s not ridiculously impossible; once you have it, it’s easy to see how Penny created the weird family around it and brought it to life.  It’s not the subtlety of Agatha Christie, where plot and character mesh so delicately, but it is a first-rate second-rate subtlety that is rare for this writer.

I won’t say that you will read Penny for the excellence of his prose, or the insightfulness of his social observations; nevertheless those things are there, in this novel more than others. I will say that you might read Penny because he’s a very rare author in the locked-room mystery category, and a minor classic (at the B- or C+ rank) of a minor Golden Age author.  And I suspect you might even enjoy him, if you relax and overlook the clunkiness and improbabilities!

My favourite edition

My favourite edition is the Collins White Circle Canada paperback shown at the top of this essay; I love the cheerfully lurid and delightfully unsophisticated CWCC covers and this is a prime example. The bondage aspect makes this particular edition quite collectible and I see one today on ABE for a total of about US$100 including postage. I don’t actually have this edition at this point in time, although I have owned a copy; I scooped this picture from the internet. My own edition is the Ramble House trade paper in bright chartreuse shown above.

There is a single hardcover in jacket of Penny’s The Talkative Policeman today and honestly, I am surprised to see it as low as US$155 (120 pounds) plus shipping from the UK. I expect the low price is due to it being a second edition. No other hardcovers appear to be currently for sale.  The facsimile jacket of the first edition of this novel shown above is merely a tantalizing hint at something that doesn’t come on the market often — I’d think in the US$500 range. Compared to that you could have a copy of all nine of the Ramble House reprints and a bottle of good Scotch to drink while you’re reading them, but suit yourself.

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.

10082534523_19b78c0ff5 11961253463_f2f85e9ce4 9780515060157-us-300 images-5 images-6 mJ-vte3MjLlU2nD_JRCEvsA
scales The Nursing Home Murder 1970 Unknown6a00d8345216fc69e2010534d39077970b-550wi 10082406364_833ca929b2_b 10082481346_17be17006aClofCo 11960910255_f8ee9beb11 11960917175_f7edbf6f2b 11960950765_d766f16e99 11961230873_67b110e84a

11961361714_14c0da31e9_b images-1 images-4 images

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.

ngaio-marsh-a-man-lay-dead 1f5c8d82354f0704b80575157a4f7136 41isO6PGeKL._BO1,204,203,200_ ml8Pw4LoCoT103eS89xioAA 340f24eb837d00bed9c9ef450bcd4ae1 2a4b1364f5a9a3042781b70171f6bfc0 51zvFxHspOL $_1

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.


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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.