Friday, 19 June 2015

Book of 1934: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh


published 1934


Man Lay Dead


Rankin led the way out into a sunken country lane, where they found a group of three muffled passengers talking noisily while a chauffeur stowed luggage away into a six-seater Bentley…

Nigel had made his bow to Rosamund Grant, a tall dark woman whose strange uncompromising beauty it would be difficult to forget. Of the Hon Mrs Wilde he could see nothing but a pair of very large blue eyes and tip of an abbreviated nose. The eyes gave him a brief appraising glance, and a rather high-pitched ‘fashionable’ voice emerged from behind the enormous fur collar:

‘How do you do? Are you a relation of Charles? Too shattering for you…’

 
observations This is my book for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at his Past Offences blog: the year for June is 1934.

The fur coats are going to be significant, and not only because the investigation will also show up how many clothes a woman going on a weekend country house visit would bring with her – this is part of one woman’s travelling wardrobe:
‘Harris tweed coat and skirt, shepherd’s plaid overcoat. Burberry raincoat, blue. Black astrakhan overcoat, black fur collar and cuffs.’
Later one character will ask another ‘if I were to kiss the fur on your collar, would you mind very much?’

This was Ngaio Marsh’s first crime novel, and it has some very traditional clues: a piece of fur caught on a railing is just one of them. And rather a traditional plot: disparate people assembled for the houseparty, a game of Murder which is going to get all too real. There is a ludicrous Russian plotline, and Inspector Alleyn is very annoying. It’s not a terrible story, but you would not have been betting on the author becoming a Queen of Crime and producing a considerable body of work.

The book has an uncertain tone, and the final exposition, where the murderer is revealed, is bizarre, I read it several times but it still didn’t make much sense – why did the person involved confess so suddenly?

1934 details – on a visit to a restaurant, Nigel has to sit at a table at the back because he is not in evening dress, and there is an implication that he and his partner can’t take to the dance-floor because not smartly enough dressed.

The country house has a vast number of servants, who are all treated with a great deal of disdain, when any interest is shown in them at all. I wouldn’t blame them if they’d risen up and committed the murder in a big gang. A dogskin glove (dropped by the murderer?) has a press button on it, which I eventually worked out to be what we would call a popper or press-stud.

It was hard to feel much sympathy for the victim, nor much disapproval for the killer.

I did wonder if Marsh was very familiar with the milieu she was describing. The houseparty was rather cartoonish, what with the tango-dancing, the de-bagging, and this authorial intervention:
‘Charles you’ll make me drunk,’ she announced. Why does a certain type of young woman think this remark unfailingly funny?
The revered Inspector Alleyn – this is of course his first appearance – is described as having an Oxonian accent. I think she means Oxbridge – but I liked to think of him talking like either an Oxford city townie, or else a rustic yokel from the county of Oxfordshire.

I have recently been talking a lot about Martin Edwards’ marvellous The Golden Age of Murder. One of the aspects I haven’t mentioned to date has been his clever way with plots and solutions: there isn’t a word of a spoiler in his book, but he does discuss plots and solutions – just a long way (in page terms) from any mention of the title. This simple but brilliant trick means that anyone who has read that particular crime books knows exactly what he means, but no-one else has the plot spoiled – I was full of admiration.

And so at this point I would like to say to blog friends Noah Stewart and Daniel Milford Cottam: yes I got it…. They will know what I mean, but no-one else will...

Blogfriend Lucy Fisher has reviewed a number of Ngaio Marsh books on her blog The Art of Words, and lists all the books, with notes, on this page.

The ladies peering out from around their fur collars and cuffs are from Kristine’s photostream, and the date is 1932.


















20 comments:

  1. Beat me this month on the meme, though I have read my 34 book. Needless to say I won't be seeking this one out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't suggest you should go for this one Col, but look forward to hearing about your 1934 book. And really think you should put in your request to have a more recent date next time!

      Delete
    2. I've taken your advice and already bent Rich's ear for July!

      Delete
  2. Great assessment of this book, I think, Moira. It certainly isn't as rich and witty as some of her later work is. It's as though her main focus was putting the elements of the mystery in there - making sure of that - rather than a real focus on the characters and plot. I hope that doesn't sound too muddled, and it's just my opinion, but still... That said though, Marsh at her weakest is a lot better than a lot of people at their best.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes exactly, Margot, nicely put. I think perhaps she was trying to make the book resemble other crime stories of the time - when she went her own way in later books she did much better. And what a body of work she left us...

      Delete
  3. Congratulations on getting it!! I'm going to assume that what you call a "popper" or "press-stud" is what I think of as a snap, or snap fastening. And I know enough to know that a "dogskin glove" isn't really made of dogskin -- it's that horrible brownish yellow colour that distinguishes it, right?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And thank you, Noah, for the perfect non-spoiler! Yes I think they must be the same - who knew that such a tiny insignificant item could have so many names?! And that is exactly the picture I have of dogskin, but didn't know if it might be a truly descriptive name....

      Delete
    2. You found it rather sooner than I expected - although I was sure you'd get it eventually!

      Delete
    3. I know! It was going to niggle in the back of my mind till I found it, so very lucky that the year for the blog meme was 1934, and I was in a Marsh mood.

      Delete
  4. I really enjoyed the review Moira but I fear that at this rate a Marsh fan I shall not ever be ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I feel I've let you down Sergio - I remember us dissing Marsh together, and now I have gone over to the dark side. But I am not particularly recommending this one - it's certainly not the one to change your mind....

      Delete
  5. Moira, I'm tagging this for my own 'First Novels' challenge. I think Ngaio Marsh’s first crime novel makes the grade.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's not the greatest book ever, Prashant, but it is an easy and entertaining read.

      Delete
  6. I read this one, along with the next 10 or 11 around 2005ish, and I liked them fine, or I would not have continued reading them one after another. Although I remember no details.

    I remember I got very interested in finding all the country house mysteries I could when I read Farthing, by Jo Walton, and loving the interaction between the protagonist and the servants, and then when I read older country house mysteries, they are not the same in that way at all. (I think I have mentioned that here before.) Very disappointing. But I keep trying.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Although it WAS you who introduced me to Jo Walton (and I am very grateful) I didn't know that: that you looked for more of the same in other country house mysteries. I think she is a very different author. The role of servants in such books is always interesting and often problematic.

      Delete
  7. "Dogskin" reminds me of how freaked out I was when I first encountered "ponyskin". Ponies??!!! Er, no. Phew...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am so sophisticated and grownup that this happened to me *last week*. I was showing off my new leopardskin ankle boots (I know!) someone checked for texture, and said 'ponyskin'. I panicked, and then they said it was OK, ponies didn't come in leopard patterns...

      Delete
  8. If you go to Oxford University, you become a BA (Oxon.). For Cambridge it's BA (Cantab.). Oxoniensis and Cantabrigiensis.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I still don't think it's an Oxonian accent that she means!

      Delete