Marsh and MacDonald

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MacDonald's 'At the Back of the North Wind'

MacDonald’s ‘At the Back of the North Wind’

Marsh and MacDonald

In my last blog, I made a link between a passage I had been reading in a Ngaio Marsh murder mystery and the memorial service for C S Lewis. I never dreamt I would be doing the same again for my next blog, although this time not about C S Lewis but in reference to his mentor, George MacDonald.

This week I moved on to reading Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar (1939), beautifully realised on TV and DVD with Patrick Malahide as her Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. If you like murder mysteries that also take you on a trip to the seaside with your favourite detective, then this is one for you (as well as the classic ABC Murders with Poirot, of course). ‘Death at the Bar’ is a pun, much beloved by Marsh for her titles, as the murder victim is killed at the bar in a darts match in an old-fashioned pub but is also ‘at the bar’ since he is a lawyer. Meanwhile, Inspector Alleyn is up to his eyes in work and exhausted in London and so is rather pleased to get the chance to travel to Ottercombe in Devon on the south west coast of England for a change that might prove something of a rest.

He and his main sidekick Inspector Fox are soon holed up in the olde worlde pub where the murder has taken place and are interviewing suspects. But they cannot resist the charm of the beautiful scenery stealing over them. One night, instead of concentrating on poisons and fingerprint evidence, Alleyn takes a break:

“He got up, stretched himself, and leant over the windowsill. The moon was out, and the sleeping roofs of Ottercombe made such patterns of white and inky black as woodcut draughtsmen love. It was a gull’s-eye view Alleyn had from the parlour window, a setting for a child’s tale of midnight wonders. A cat was sitting on one of the crooked eaves. It stared at the moon and might have been waiting for an appointment with some small night-gowned figure that would presently lean, dreaming, from the attic window. Alleyn had a liking for old fairy tales and found himself thinking of George MacDonald and the Back of the North Wind. The Combe was very silent in the moonlight.”

This is just one of the very evocative descriptions by Marsh of the Devonshire coast and what a small English coastal village was like in 1939, almost cut off from the rest of the world. There are also interesting political discussions between characters, like Nark and Legge and Will Pomeroy, which would not be out of place in the polemic over emergent evolutionism, scientism, and social progressivism also used in C S Lewis’ cosmic trilogy of the same period and confirm that he had his finger on the pulse of the times (if more confirmation were needed). But I am chiefly grateful at this moment for this evidence that one of my favourite literary detectives was also a fan of fairy tales and the father of fantasy fiction, that his first recourse on a moonlit night was to think in imagery derived from the marvellous MacDonald, or should I say that I am grateful for this reminder from the mind of his fantastic female creator, Ngaio Marsh.


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