Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Ngaio Marsh - Was She a Snob After All?

Just add orange lipstick

Marsh's early 50s novel Death at the Bar certainly supports the case of those who dismiss all Golden Age mystery writers as snobs.

It's not one of her best. Three toffs, barrister Luke Watchman, actor Sebastian Paris and painter Norman Cubitt, are holidaying in an isolated Devon fishing village. Also present are an amateur watercolourist, the Hon. Violet Darragh, and Mr Legge, who works for a philatelic society. The staff of the pub, Abel and Will Pommeroy, play a part, as does local beauty Decima Moore, and there's an off-stage cook called Mrs Ives. It turns out that Legge is a darts wizard who boasts he can put a dart between the fingers of a hand spread out on the board. The boys can't resist the challenge.

The characters are mainly unappealing, apart from Norman and the Hon. Violet. There's a "Rashomon" structure - we are not present at the murder, and only see it being set up, witness the aftermath, and hear the various characters' retelling of events. Of course each one will reveal or omit a vital detail. This could have been an opportunity for revealing character, too, but the dramatis personae seem rather flat, and the girl in the case is a cipher apart from her orange lipstick. At one point Alleyn looks on them all as marionettes – naturally Alleyn and Fox are called in when the mystery baffles the local force. He'd never get away with his methods today - he does his own forensics, and seems to have everything necessary in a Tardis-like case.

There's an irritating Chief Constable who speaks entirely in literary quotations - is Marsh sending up other writers and her own earlier books? She pokes fun at left-wing politics as she did in The Nursing Home Murder, but this time the raillery is unconvincing (Communists in Devon? The "Combe Left Movement"?). She brings in a repellently pompous West Country character called Mr Nark to make communism and evolution sound absurd.

Meanwhile the middle classes make grating remarks, and dear Inspector Fox delivers a cringing speech about how Alleyn has never let him feel their vast separation in the class hierarchy. Too many of the characters speak in painful dialect (thiccy, howsomedever etc). We have to endure pages of this as publican Abel reconstructs the crime. The Hon Violet has a theatrical Irish brogue, but is more convincing. Everybody talks archly about the murderer “anointing” or “infecting” the dart with cyanide.

The love interest, Decima, went to a “good” school and then to university, but she has come home and got engaged to the younger Pommeroy. Luke and Sebastian are discussing her:

‘There’s an engagement in the offing.’ ‘What d’you mean?’ ‘Decima and Will Pomeroy.’ Watchman sat up. ‘I don’t believe you,’ he said sharply. ‘Well – why not?’ ‘Good Lord! A politically minded pot-boy.’ ‘Actually they’re the same class,’ Parish murmured. ‘Perhaps; but she’s not of it.’

There’s a tricky moment when the Chief Constable invites Alleyn and the doctor to dinner, in the presence of inspectors Harper and Fox. Will he condescend to invite them too? He does (though he forgets Fox’s name).

‘Lucky I brought my blue suit,’ said Fox, ‘and lucky you brought your dress clothes, Mr Alleyn.’ ‘Why didn’t you let me tell Colonel Brammington that we’d neither of us change, Foxkin?’ ‘No, no, sir. It’s the right thing for you to dress, just as much as it’d be silly for me to do so.

As well as "Foxkin", Alleyn calls his sidekick Fox “Br’er Fox”, from the Br’er Rabbit stories (retellings of African folk tales). And why on earth did Alleyn pack his dinner jacket?

‘Br’er Fox,’ said Alleyn, ‘are we to have a row?’ ‘I hope not, sir, I’m sure,’ said Fox tranquilly. ‘Six years I think it is now, and never a moment’s unpleasantness, thanks to your tact and consideration.’

Fox’s attempts to learn French are intended as a joke. I remember too the way Alleyn teases and bullies Nigel Bathgate in the early books – though he does apologise when he realises he has hurt Nigel’s feelings. I also recall Alleyn’s early archness – talking to doctors about “pottles” and “pipkins” of drugs. And the way Marsh thinks opera is ridiculous and expects us to agree, and her guying of an elderly female art collector. And there are an awful lot of butlers in her books...

Trust me, she's not always like this. In Clutch of Constables she takes on race and class. "I could call myself a bloody earl!" says a Cockney character, doubting that a mixed-race character could really be a doctor. But he adds: "Not that anyone'd believe me."

More on Marsh here, and links to the rest.

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