I’ve written about Ngaio Marsh before. It’s my pleasure to be writing about her again.

June 18, 2019 at 8:01 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  A week ago last Tuesday, on an exceptionally lovely day, we Suspects gathered on Hilda’s screened porch to discuss Overture to Death by Ngaio Marsh.

This was Mike’s selection, and she did an excellent job presenting background for the life of Dame Ngaio. (“My Damery,” she called it; it was bestowed in honor of her work in theater in her native New Zealand.)

Overture To Death is a classic English village mystery. In some ways it’s amazing to think how insular such places still were on the eve of the Second World War. Not that you would know from this narrative that catastrophe was looming so nearly. On the contrary: in Pen Cuckoo, plans are afoot for an amateur play production. Theatrics and all the concomitant confusion dominate everyone’s thoughts. A suitable play must be selected and cast, purely by the locals, of course. Competition is fierce; comments are snide.

There’s Jocelyn Jernigham, Lord of the Manor, which is also named Pen Cuckoo. Against his wishes, his son Henry is in love with Dinah Copeland, the rector’s daughter, and means to marry her. For her part, Dinah has acted professionally and takes it upon herself to help direct the thespian undertaking of the denizens of Pen Cuckoo. So: into the mix throw William Templett, the village doctor; Selia Ross, a comely, scheming widow; Miss Eleanor Prentice, a nosy busybody who also happens to be cousin to Jocelyn Jerningham; Miss Idris Campanula – a couple of invidious spinsters both in hot pursuit of the widoewed rector  – and several others, and we’re off and running!

Overture To Death, then, is a story of loving, loathing, resentment, and all manner of other emotions let loose in a dangerous way. It’s s roiling brew, and of course, it all culminates in murder. And what a murder! You’ll probably agree that it’s one of the more ingenious methods of causing death that you’ve encountered in crime fiction. This book cover hints at what’s involved: . Believe me, it’s much more subtle – fiendish, even – than it appears to be here.

Somehow, in the course of our discussion, the subject of red sacristy lamps in churches came up. This was something of which – unsurprisingly – I’d never heard. Frank introduced us to the storytelling term “lampshading.”  (Truth to tell, I don’t quite understand this.)  All in all, this was a discussion in which the digressions were as much fun as  the main topic!

Mike reminded us that in creating the character of Detective Roderick Alleyn, Marsh became a pioneer in the field of police procedurals. (Someone pointed out that Poirot had been a policeman in his native Belgium. While this is in fact part of his back story, he was never technically a member of the force in Britain. He acted solely in a private capacity, always ready to assist Inspector Japp by using the prodigious power of his “leetle gray cells.”)

The reader will no doubt delight in the finely wrought prose passages that distinguish the work of Dame Ngaio.

Henry uttered an impatient noise and moved away from the fireplace. He joined his father in the window and he too looked down into the darkling vale of Pen Cuckoo. He saw an austere landscape, adamant beneath drifts of winter mist. The naked trees slept soundly, the fields were dumb with cold; the few stone cottages, with their comfortable signals of blue smoke, were the only waking things in all the valley.
**************

The hall rang with Miss Campanula’s conversation. She was a large arrogant spinster with a firm bust, a high-coloured complexion, coarse grey hair, and enormous bony hands. Her clothes were hideous but expensive, for Miss Campanula was extremely wealthy. She was supposed to be Eleanor Prentice’s great friend. Their alliance was based on mutual antipathies and interests. Each adored scandal and each cloaked her passion in a mantle of conscious rectitude. Neither trusted the other an inch, but there was no doubt that they enjoyed each other’s company.
**********

It did not matter to them that they were unable to speak to each other, for their thoughts went forward to the morning, and their hearts trembled with happiness. They were isolated by their youth, two scathless figures. It would have seemed impossible to them that their love for each other could hold any reflection, however faint, of the emotions that drew Dr. Templett to Selia Ross, or those two ageing women to the rector. They would not have believed that there was a reverse side to love, or that the twin-opposites of love lay dormant in their own hearts. Nor were they to guess that never again, as long as they lived, would they know the rapturous expectancy that now pressed them.

I’ve read several Roderick Alleyn novels and led discussions of two: Death in a White Tie and The Nursing Home Murder. My favorite of all of them is Death in a White Tie, for two reasons. First of all, that book depicts the London “season” in all its vivid glory – the endless round of parties and the blatant husband hunting carried on by the young debs and their mothers; it is as much a novel of manners as a murder mystery. Secondly, the murder victim is someone who moves in those circles and is known and liked by Rory (Roderick), Troy, and numerous others. The grief at his untimely passing is thus genuine and heartfelt.

I don’t understand why more crime fiction authors don’t create a known and sympathetic victim. To my mind, it causes the reader to be more emotionally invested in the story. That’s certainly what happened to me as I was reading Death in a White Tie.

A word about the BBC series filmed in 1993 and 1994. The BBC changed the order of the episodes – in some cases altering the content of certain episodes – so as to to create a story arc that would smoothly accommodate the love story of  Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy. Not to worry: it works beautifully. The mysteries are entirely engrossing. Having them undergirded by  the somewhat tumultuous relationship between ‘Rory’ and ‘Troy’ adds to the drama without overwhelming it.

Patrick Malahide as Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, backed up, as always, by Detective Inspector Fox, affectionately called ‘Brer Fox’, played by William Simons

Patrick Malahide with Belinda Lang as Agatha Troy

(Fun fact: Belinda Lang is married to Hugh Fraser, who plays Captain Arthur Hastings in the Poirot series starring David Suchet.)

It’s  been noted that the character of Roderick Alleyn bears some similarities to  that of Lord Peter Wimsey. Both are the younger sons of a titled aristocrats; both have carried out some secret intelligence missions in service to their country; both are in love with accomplished women that they desire to wed. For their part, both of these women – Agatha Troy and Harriet Vane, respectively – evince a marked reluctance to get married, a reluctance which is at length overcome, to the satisfaction of all, not least the reader.

The Inspector Alleyn books of Ngaio Marsh are among the most pleasurable relics of the Golden Age of British crime.

Barry Forshaw, in The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction

Ngaio Marsh in 1947

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