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The odour of not-quite-sanctity: Church as Country House Murder

So, continuing with my pleasant journey through Ngaio Marsh’s 33 Inspector Alleyn books, some of which I read in any old order back in the dim and distant days when my library carried a far wider range of books than they currently do. (Moans disconsolately that the Crime Fiction shelves seem to be filled with 50 Shades of Girls on Trains, and any number of the latest dismemberment of beautiful women by serial killers)

Back to Marsh, a much, much happier encounter, by a writer with her own clear voice, travelling her own journey, and not clonally copying

Death In Ecstasy is number 4 in the journey. It is a rare one, in that I am more aware of some of the mores and prejudices of the times – this one published in 1936 – which can be a little disturbing, unsettling or even, offensive to a reader of today. Though I do find Marsh, coming from outside the Establishment, and, moreover, from outside this country, has probably had a far wider exposure to more diverse humanity than some of the other ‘Golden Agers’ whom she is bracketed with. The specific discomfort in this one, a mild degree of homophobia – some of it passes as a kind of mildly spiteful camp humour, even delivered consciously by the gay guys – dancers, of course, but, a little more unsettling is Alleyn himself, Inspector Fox and Nigel Bathgate making disparaging comments – Bathgate describing one of the men as ‘loathly, nauseating, unspeakable little dollop’ – though I suppose that, as at that time, homosexuality was illegal, it would be a rare popular book (as perhaps, compared to more literary fare) who would positively present homosexual minor characters. At least Alleyn is less deliberate in his assessment, merely riposting ‘Horrid, wasn’t it?’ agreed Alleyn absently, – clearly thinking more fruitful thoughts about the crime investigation

There is, as is the case fairly often with Marsh, more than one investigation going on. The initial case concerns a murder taking place in a fringe, cult religious organisation. The journalist, Nigel Bathgate, a sometimes self-styled Watson to Alleyn’s Holmes, lives close by the mysterious charismatic church, and, on a bored whim, wonders what goes on in the building. He happens to witness a totally unexpected death, and quickly summons his friends from the Yard. And what a tangled web begins to unravel. With some nice nods to occultic quasi mysticism and unpleasant ideologies arising in Germany (as was indeed the case) the crime investigation begins to involve the usual suspects in murder cases – lust, sexual jealousy, greed, but there are various twists involved.

As ever, Marsh’s clear enjoyment of language, and her lovely, sometimes quite spiteful character drawing – as much down to her visual, artistic abilities as her writerly ones, plus her theatrical skills in crafting tight scenes are a delight :

Mrs Candour had wept and her tears had blotted her make-up again. Her face was an unlovely mess of mascara, powder and rouge. It hung in flabby pockets from the bone of her skull. She looked bewildered, frightened and vindictive. Her hands were tremulous. She was a large woman born to be embarrassingly ineffectual. In answer to Alleyn’s suggestion that she should sit on one of the chairs, she twitched her loose lips, whispered something and walked towards them with that precarious gait induced by excessive flesh mounted on French heels. She moved in a thick aura of essence of violet

Wonderful, cruel scalpel work, and I fear I shall be unable to view anyone whose girth really should have them avoiding heels, without inner snickering

To be fair, where Marsh assassinates, there is often good reason, and the reader is aware of characters who are unlovely at core. Though, as I work my way through her oeuvre, I am beginning to be a little more suspicious of some of the suspects Alleyn initially warms to

Meanwhile, for readers who share my liking of enthusiastic Nigel Bathgate, and his admiration of Angela North, enjoy him while you can, as his days are numbered as the series progresses. The in the Yard relationships are deepening, and also, as the series goes on, we learn more about Alleyn’s rather admirable personal life, and his close colleagues within the Police Force, not to mention relatives and others will mean that others will serve the purpose of foils, sources of alternative deductions, and a kind of sparring partner of wit and repartee. Shame I love all the developing friendships and other relationships, but will be sorry when Nigel is less central

Meanwhile given Marsh’s theatre history, I am more than sure that ‘Mrs Candour’ is a kind of nod towards Restoration Comedy, where often a character’s name will alert the audience to qualities that character does NOT possess, as is certainly the case here.

Death in Ecstasy Amazon UK
Death in Ecstasy Amazon USA