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Ngaio Marsh: ‘Enter a Murderer’

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It was a shock to re-read ‘Enter a Murderer’ (1935) by Ngaio Marsh after 15 years and find that I didn’t like Roderick Alleyn.

Obviously I hugely admire Marsh’s body of work and I suppose I’m now so used to the wonderful Patrick Malahide version of the Chief Inspector on TV, that I have superimposed him on any of these stories that I now read.  This can work with the later, more mature stories.  But ‘Enter a Murderer’ is only the second in the series.  I also decided to re-read the first one, ‘A Man Lay Dead’ (1934), to get started again on the series, and I was definitely in for an unpleasant surprise.

The earliest Albert Campion I adore.  The earliest Lord Peter Wimsey likewise.  In fact I probably prefer them to their later more adult and responsible selves.  I love their craziness and ‘joie de vivre’, their gabbiness and self-confidence.  But Roderick Alleyn in his early incarnation – eek!  I found myself almost embarrassed for the poor chap.  He seemed fey instead of charming, condescending instead of self-confident, even slightly bullying and manipulative at times towards his minions, and as for his interaction with women – double eek!  I felt like searching out his future spouse Agatha Troy in the pages of books yet to come and saying ‘Run!  Run like the wind!’

It was doubly unfortunate that I was re-reading this book for our Classic Crime Club (at Bromley House Library in Nottingham) just after we’d discussed ‘Swan Song’ by Edmund Crispin.  I’d also read that one before but I can read Crispin any time and get a kick out of it.  The settings were similar – Crispin’s with opera singers at an Oxford theatre, Marsh’s with actors in a London theatre.  The fact that Marsh called this ‘the Unicorn case’ in the Foreword gave me hope that this might prove magical and exciting.  But of course it was only because the setting was to be the Unicorn Theatre!  Well, perhaps that disappointment reflected what was to come.  Crispin’s story was silly but sparkling.  In comparison it was very easy to get rather bored and bogged down in Marsh.


Ngaio Marsh

Plot

The background is dripping with hatred and blackmail.  I won’t go into any detail.  One problem with reading Classic Crime fiction is that we are so familiar with all the main methods of murder in the many subsequent novels that stories from the Thirties can look not just clichéd, but like a wrinkly cliché with long grey whiskers supporting itself on a walking frame.  We now know that the moment someone steps onto a stage that a heavy object from above will fall on them (usually a chandelier) and that any prop knife or gun will turn out out to be real.  Enough said.

Setting

I got a bit fed up of all the back-stage specialist knowledge, although I do appreciate that Marsh was writing this partly out of nostalgia for the theatre when she was back in New Zealand caring for her father after her mother’s death.   The difference in her level of skill between the early rather clunking descriptions of England and the English and her later stories, especially those featuring New Zealand, is obvious.

Characters

When the main suspects are actors you never know whether they’re telling the truth or acting their butts off – handy for the author but increasingly tedious for the reader.  Every time the Inspector interviews yet another flighty/drunk/egocentric narcissist, you think ‘Here we go again, they’re lying throughout their highly-polished teeth.’

I was amazed to realise that most of the main characters are in their mid-20s.  Several sounded like raddled old roués!   And what was Stephanie thinking in her dalliance with the repellent Surbonadier?   A problem all murder mystery writers have is that when a murder victim has got to be so unpleasant that at least one person would risk hanging to kill him or her, the victim has also had to be nice and attractive enough in the past for people to have wanted to hang out with them, have affairs with them, etc, in the first place.

And don’t talk to me about Nigel Bathgate the journalist.  The poor sap was bad enough in the first book.  And here he is again, in an even more unlikely role as Alleyn’s right hand man until, thank goodness, DS Fox takes over in later books (despite Alleyn calling him ‘Foxkin’ ).  The cigar-chomping impresario Jacob Saint was sufficiently terrifying (even if he does have a footman called ‘Mincing’!!) .  There’s old Susan Max the actress, Felix Gardener the star, the men and women behind the scenes – no shortage of suspects.  Could Surbonadier even have committed suicide and framed his main rival?

Roderick Alleyn

Alleyn’s appearance – his face is described as “winged”, ie. mouth, nostrils, eyes all slanting upwards – not bad for a 41 year old.  Although that could sound as though he’s had several sessions with an over-enthusiastic plastic surgeon.  (Perhaps there’s a tiny version of RA walking around made out of the excess skin, like in the famous Joan Rivers’ joke?)

Everyone says Alleyn has a marvellous memory at the beginning, but then later on he says his memory is “filthy”.  Is this Marsh reflecting her father’s character in the Inspector?  She says in her autobiography that his memory was notoriously bad and gives striking examples of it.  Her father was an ex-public schoolboy from Dulwich College in England, where the old boys were called Alleynians, after Edward Alleyn the Elizabethan actor who founded the place, thus the Inspector’s name.  And Marsh tells us that it is pronounced ‘Allen’, not ‘Allain’, in her article on Alleyn’s origins. Perhaps Alleyn’s early rather alarming playfulness is a direct reflection of her late Victorian father?  The fact that Alleyn asks Bathgate if he can do shorthand, when Bathgate took shorthand notes for him in the previous novel, is perhaps proof of his “filthy” memory.  (Another proof might be that he twice refers to the name of the murderer in the first book – does he not care about spoilers?!)  He is supposed to be good at mimicking people, and in this story imitates several accents.  He even gave one of his “rare laughs”.  He prefers a pipe to cigarettes.  Startlingly, he says he doesn’t “understand law”.  Er, what job do you do, again?

And then there’s the ‘romance’ – Alleyn’s B-movie dialogue and canoodling with an actress/suspect, despite the fact that he calls all actors “a bit thick”.  He holds Stephanie, the glamorous, in his arms:

“ ‘What’s this?’ he said roughly. ‘I know you’re everything I most deplore – and yet – look at this.  Shall I kiss you?’ “ 

He returns to this later:

“ ‘I would say I hated myself when I held you in my arms.  It would only be half true.  My thoughts were a mixture of grovel and glory.’ “ 

There is also the strange way he does a body search of another actress, almost in a mystical trance!

But I am grateful for one phrase of Alleyn’s that could prove useful.  Instead of getting the “heebie-jeebies” as we might say, he gets the “ooble-boobles”.  That’s great!  I might adopt that.

So, yes, I do normally love Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and think Ngaio Marsh was astonishingly talented, but in this reading of ‘Enter a Murderer’ her creation has given me a touch of the ooble-boobles.  I stand by my advice:

‘Run, Troy, run!’

I’ve included some more problems with the plot in the NOTES below, which contain Spoilers.

And if you’d like to see a preview of my last book, here is a link:

NOTES

I’ve already read Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Enter a Murderer’ twice so I certainly don’t want to read it a third time to find out whether I’m right about what was wrong!  So forgive me if this is mere nit-picking or forgetful speculation on my part, but, as far as I could tell, these seem to be loopholes and/or gaffes in the plot:

1]  It’s possible, but not at all necessary, that Felix Gardener would not bother looking at the hanging figure and therefore spot it was only a dummy.  Alleyn was taking a heck of a gamble.  And it was highly likely who the body was supposed to be, by a process of elimination, so why couldn’t Gardener have made a correct guess and acted out his role accordingly?

2]  The “threatening letter” that was typed on stage – wouldn’t someone have been able to see that Felix wasn’t merely typing ‘Q’ over and over?  Plus there would have been the typewriter ribbon with the letter on it available to the police from the word go.  Why didn’t they check it?  Gardener wiped the keys clean but didn’t bother about the fact that he’d left evidence of an incriminating letter behind.

3]  As several people in our reading group pointed out, why on earth did the murderer choose a night when a police inspector was at the front of the audience?  Oh well, at least Alleyn had a “busman’s holiday” with a free ticket paid for by the murderer, as he himself concludes!


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.


C S Lewis’ Memorial Service

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C S Lewis’ Memorial Service

 

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

After being at the C S Lewis memorial events at Westminster Abbey this week – listening to lectures on C S Lewis, speaking at the C S Lewis Symposium, meeting up with C S Lewis fans and friends, and finally attending the C S Lewis service itself – I felt like having a bit of a day off today to recover, preferably on activities nothing to do with C S Lewis. Especially as I’ve also spent the last few weeks reading Lewis’ novels and writing talks about Lewis, some non-Lewis reading seemed in order, much as I love him.

But, as usually happens when I’m trying to escape a subject, the very thing I pick up instead drags me back to it – or, to put it more positively, gives new insight and perspective on the forbidden subject. This morning, as an escape, I picked up at random an old murder mystery by Ngaio Marsh called False Scent (1960). It concerns the death of a famous actress. And after being with the thousands who turned up to honour Lewis this week, I couldn’t help but resonate with the opening words of Ngaio Marsh’s story:

“When she died it was as if all the love she had inspired in so many people suddenly blossomed. She had never, of course, realised how greatly she was loved, never known that she was to be carried by six young men who would ask to perform this last courtesy: to bear her on their strong shoulders, so gently and with such dedication. Quite insignificant people were there… the family nurse… her dresser… the stage doorkeeper… Crowds of people whom she herself would have scarcely remembered but upon whom, at some time, she had bestowed the gift of her charm. All the Knights and Dames, of course, and The Management, and… the great producer who had so often directed her. Bertie Saracen who had created her dresses since the days when she was a bit-part actress and who had, indeed, risen to his present eminence in the wake of her mounting fame. But it was not for her fame that they had come to say goodbye to her. It was because, quite simply, they had loved her.”

That was exactly how I felt! I, surely, was one of those “insignificant people” who had turned up to honour Lewis on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. As a speaker at one of the commemorative events, I did have a place in the Quire of the Abbey and so was closer to the ‘action’ and so felt doubly blessed and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking along the lines of “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

Service booklet for C S Lewis' Memorial

Service booklet for C S Lewis’ Memorial

The service was stunning and moving, beginning with the oh-so-appropriate opening hymn ‘He who would valiant be’ based on Pilgrim’s Progress, then a recording of Lewis himself speaking about “getting a real self”. How strange and affecting to hear his voice in that setting. Then Dr Francis Warner, one of Lewis’ pupils, read from Isaiah 35 (including the wonderful phrase “the habitation of dragons”!), and Prof Helen Cooper, who holds Lewis’ old chair at Cambridge, read 2 Corinthians 4 (“eternal weight of glory”). There followed a particularly telling reading as Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ stepson, gave us Aslan’s welcoming of the children into his land forever after their earthly deaths from The Last Battle – hard not to shed a tear at that point if you hadn’t already. Dr Michael Ward led the dedication of the memorial that he has done so much to bring about and Walter Hooper, Lewis’ friend and secretary and the editor of his works, laid beautiful white flowers above Lewis’ name.   The Right Rev and Right Hon Rowan Williams (now “The Lord Williams of Oystermouth” – who knew?) gave a brilliant sermon on Lewis’ defense of language and the human, and the Choir sang Paul Mealor’s flowing arrangement of Lewis’ poem ‘Love’s as warm as tears’ – another opportunity for tears from the congregation. The prayers were led by a wonderful array of clergy representing the geography of Lewis’ life and the service ended on an uplifting note with ‘O praise ye the Lord!’

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet's Corner

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet’s Corner

There was then the chance for us to actually see the memorial with Lewis’ name in the stone floor of Poet’s Corner, cut with his own words: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”

There may often be people going to services at Westminster Abbey just to see the magnificence of the building (and not pay the usual £18 entrance fee – there’s a tip for you) or some may have been tempted to come simply because Lewis is now a celebrity, as opposed to the very few who went to his funeral in 1963. But I don’t think this was the case yesterday on the 22nd of November, 2013. If I can adapt the words of the Ngaio Marsh story:

“But it was not for his fame that they had come to say goodbye to him. It was because, quite simply, they had loved him.”