Golden Age Wit, Golden Age Murder, in different variations of closed, ‘ Country House’
Ngaio Marsh is the only Golden Age Crime Fiction author I genuinely adore. I have read her books intermittently, when lucky enough to find her in my local library, but she seems to have vanished from their shelves, pretty much, as these are now devoted to more lurid, modern crime fiction, and no longer seem to stock much ‘cosy’.
I don’t know whether it is because she begins writing a little later than Christie, Sayers or Allingham – mid 30s, rather than 20s, or because she came from outside the UK and outside the upper or upper middle class echelons which the other three came from, but I find her writing is less filled with some of the disturbing attitudes towards race and class which was certainly prevalent in the interwar years.
Marsh’s background was not particularly privileged – her father was a bank clerk. Her first passion was art and theatre, and she initially came to the UK in the late 20s from New Zealand, setting up an interior design shop. The first of her Inspector Alleyn books was published in 1934, though she had written it prior to her return to New Zealand in 1932. Beginning to write as the Depression takes hold, coming from another country, coming from a more ‘rogues and vagabonds’ outsider culture, perhaps all made for a slightly less jaundiced view of ‘people not like us’
Whatever the reason, although certainly her detective is crisp and aquiline, cool and educated, impeccably well-read and all the rest, he seems to be more at home in a wider social class, and is rather more of a team player, less the solitary, eccentric, maverick. He is also, to my mind, deliciously funny in a self-deprecating way. Part of the joy of Alleyn is that he doesn’t work alone. Relationships develop, both professional and personal, whether between him and those in his team – especially Inspector Fox (affectionately called Brer Fox by Alleyn) but also he inspires affection in his ‘plods’ and he trusts them, too – or, others whom he has friendships with, and who undertake, at times, investigations on his behalf.
I have begun to track down the books, in sequence and, true to form, downloading the first three – the 1934 A Man Lay Dead, and her two 1935 books, Enter A Murderer, and The Nursing Home Murder, I could not resist starting and finishing this at a running read, as the developing characters were a delight
Marsh’s first book is classically A Country House Murder. A young journalist, Nigel Bathgate, 25, is setting off with his older cousin, sophisticated, womanising Charles Rankin, to his first ever aristocratic country house party, at Frantock, Sir Hubert Handesley’s welcoming home. Handesley is cultured, good fun, and a renowned host. His gatherings are the last word in to die for. But, as the title suggests, death will be literal, not merely a figure of speech. Handesley’s gatherings always iinvolve games, and one of the most popular is ‘Murder’, where one of the guests will be designated the murderer, and once the pretend deed is done, everyone tries to discover who the murderer is.
Except, in this case, it really happens, and there are several possible culprits, and almost everyone has a motive. Sexual, monetary, not to mention political – a background of a secretive Russian society, and a mysterious vendetta, possibly involving a betrayal or two. Greed, sex, sexual betrayal, power.
Enter Marsh’s Detective – the wonderfully light touch, un-plodding, Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn can inspire a kind of adulation in those younger and older. Although his work brings him, of course, in touch with villains, and he has to suspect everyone, he seems to genuinely also like humanity. If he has a fault, it might be that he often warms as much to the perpetrators, in the likeable qualities they have, as well as he might warm to those without a murderous secret to hide.
Alleyn is both a sharp mind, and an ‘following an instinct’ detective – although he inclines most to the rational, and is wary of his instinct.
He also (hurrah!) likes women a lot – as people, and is particularly keen on intelligent, bright, forthright young women – and not as sexual fodder. Alleyn, when we meet him first, is a bachelor, without love interest on the horizon, and, in this book will form a working friendship with a man and a woman who will appear again in other books in the series
At his first appearance he was a bachelor and, although responsive to the opposite sex, did not bounce in and out of irresponsible beds when going about his job. Or if he did, I knew nothing about it. He was, to all intents and purposes, fancy-free and would remain so until, sailing out of Suva in Fiji……And that was still some half-dozen books in the future”
Marsh, in the introduction to this trilogy
The structure of the book (and indeed, the first 3) falls into 3 parts – the set up and dramatis personae at the ‘House Party’. Part 2, Enter the Detective, and the questioning and sifting of evidence. Part 3 – the reconstruction – very like the third act of a play, Alleyn nails the perpetrator by running the reconstruction, with a twist.
The second book Enter A Murderer, published in 1935, takes place in another kind of ‘closed society’ – in this case, it is theatrical, Marsh’s own roots. The setting is a West End production of a murder mystery play. Alleyn, together with the journalist Nigel Bathgate are in the audience of this hot theatrical hit. The lead actor is a chum from Bathgate’s University days. In front of the audience, in the middle of a highly dramatic scene where murder is being dramatised on stage, a real murder happens. Cue a wonderfully campy theatrical feast. The actors consummately act their ‘types’ in real life, as much as they do on stage :
Arthur Surbonadier called on Miss Stephanie Vaughan…and asked her to marry him. It was not the first time he had done so. Miss Vaughan felt herself called upon to use all her professional and personal savoir-faire. The scene needed some handling and she gave it her full attention.
‘Darling’ she said, taking her time over lighting a cigarette and quite unconsciously adopting the best of her six-by-the-mantelpiece poses
Its not just the lovely wit of Marsh, especially exemplified by Alleyn, the plotting is fiendish and fun, the genre itself is affectionately poked fun at by those investigating and those being investigated, the solution satisfying – and Alleyn himself also has compassion for those caught up in the events.
Book 3, The Nursing Home Murder also features Bathgate and Angela North his fiancée, whom we met in an earlier book. Bathgate, and Alleyn’s slightly strange almost hero worship father/son relationship is a real delight, as is Alleyn’s friendship with sharply intelligent Miss North. This book also returns to the political world of Book 1 – Russia, and a revolutionary society working towards the Proletariat Dawn, are set against draconian measures going through Parliament. The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’ Callaghan, a man with some secrets to hide, is pushing a bill through the House. He has received several death threats. He is also very unwell and in a pretty lifeless marriage.
O Callaghan is rushed to hospital seriously ill, having delayed taking action on his health until he collapses. This is of course, well before the foundation of the NHS. O Callaghan does not survive his emergency operation. It becomes a distinct possibility that the death was not the result of leaving things too late before seeking medical intervention, and more likely that someone within another closed little world – the private hospital itself – might have hastened the shuffling off of his mortal coil. There are those with personal motivations – the usual; sex, money, revenge and there are also those who might have political and ideological motivations. Some of the thinking around ideologies being debated in the mid-30s make their way into this.
I thoroughly enjoyed my immersion into the first 3 of the Alleyn mysteries, and look forward to further progression in due course
I got this on Kindle download. It’s not a completely seamless, and error free digitisation. There are some annoying paragraph and line hiccups, but no missing text. The price of the succeeding volumes rise quite sharply – there are 33 Alleyn books, published in 11 sets of 3 – and I have noted reviewers continue to mention some formatting problems. I’m intending on tracking down marketplace sellers and second hand, for the most part!
This collection also included an earlier short story by Marsh, not at all in the detective genre. As it involves a little girl in her bedroom on Christmas Eve I was really pleased when she heard footsteps outside the door that there was no need for a detective! It was a sweet and touching story.
Marsh’s books were turned into a BBC series with Patrick Malahide as Alleyn. It is one I will not be watching – not because i have any objection to Malahide; it is more, that, searching for a sneak You Tube of a couple of the titles here, I find the adaptation has played fairly fast and loose with her books, transposing the third book to after the second world war, instead of between the wars – a quite different dynamic, and introducing what is hinted at in Marsh’s introduction, as occurring ‘some half-dozen books in the future’ into the first episode, thereby also eliminating a favourite character of mine, who ought to take a professionally assisting task, and demonstrate that Alleyn can form friendships with attractive young women without irresponsibly bouncing! I think Marsh might have turned me into a purist, on behalf of her engaging books!