Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh


published 1935



Art.IWM PST 14191


[Inspector Alleyn is interviewing the witnesses at the titular nursing home]

He wrote busily, shut his little book, glanced up and gave a start of surprise. Jane Harden had come in so quietly that he had not heard her. There she stood, her fingers twisted together, staring at the inspector. He had thought at the inquest that she was very good-looking. Now, with the white veil behind it, the extreme pallor of her face was less emphatic. She was beautiful, with that peculiar beauty that covers delicate bone. The contour of the forehead and cheek-bones, the little hollows of the temples, and the fine-drawn arches of the eyes had the quality of a Holbein drawing. The eyes themselves were a very dark grey, the nose absolutely straight, and the mouth, rather too small, with drooping corners, was at once sensuous and obstinate.

“I beg your pardon,” said Alleyn; “I did not hear you come in. Please sit down.”…

Jane Harden sat down and clasped the knobs of the chair-arms with long fingers than even the exigencies of nursing had not reddened.


observations: I don’t think this book is anyone’s idea of Marsh’s best. Blog friend Lucy Fisher, my consultant on Marsh, says this in one of her helpful lists:  ‘A cabinet minister is operated on by his rival in love - fascinating on attitudes of the time’. And indeed, it does have a very good feel for a lost era of Harley St, nursing homes in the middle of London, and routine operations being performed in the home of the patient (this doesn’t happen in the book, but is mentioned in passing.)

Every time the book mentions a ‘theatre’ I experienced a little disappointment that it was medical, rather than dramatic – although the sleuths all do go off to see a sketch about surgeons in a revue, looking for clues apparently.

BUT, this book does contain possibly my favourite line in her oeuvre, and one that I have remembered for years. The future murder victim’s wife, Lady O’Callaghan, is cold and remote and passionless, their marriage is virtually non-existent and ‘as a rule he had no feeling about her at all’.
He supposed he had married her in a brief wave of enthusiasm for polar exploration.
-- made all the better by the fact that the general timescheme would suggest that they could easily have married around 1910-12, the time of the Scott of the Antarctic expedition.

Later Alleyn lights Lady O’C’s cigarette:
It rather surprised him to find that she smoked. It gave her an uncanny resemblance to something human.
There’s a lot of wasted time spent on tracking down Russian agitators, and a huge amount of detail about the exact medical procedure in the operation. And there is a strange sideline in eugenics.

My main conclusion is that the book is very unlucky in that there is a much much better book about murder on the operating table: Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger, one of my top 10 ever detective stories.

The nurse above is from a poster at the Imperial War Museum. She doesn’t resemble a Holbein drawing much. The blog has featured Holbein pictures a couple of times: you can admire this lady’s eyebrows here – it’s Jane Seymour, one of the wives of Henry VIII:


Nursing Home Murder 2











12 comments:

  1. It may not be Marsh's finest, Moira, but even so, I do like the wit in it. I'm glad that you shared those terrific one-liners; Marsh was great with those. And as you say, the book does give a really interesting look at the era.

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    1. Yes, it was very enjoyable, and I do like the casual details in her books, which really pin down the era.

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  2. Moira, I have read some good medical thrillers but not a murder mystery, at least I don't think so. Marsh seems to have been versatile.

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    1. Yes indeed she was. There is a lot of medical detail in this book, most of which meant nothing to me.... I didn't even try to work out who could have done what during the operation.

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  3. A couple of great lines, but I think I'll stick with the one I have of hers....... though for all I know it could be this one!

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    1. We're waiting for it to turn up, Col. Getting quite excited to find out what it is....

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  4. I haven't read this one but I absolutely love the polar exploration line.

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    1. It's brilliant isn't it? Makes me smile so much....

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  5. Some of those lines are great. But I remember nothing about reading this one. As soon as I saw the picture, I thought of Green for Danger, and was sure that is could not compare.

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    1. I think it is very forgettable, and no need to reread. I'd reread Green for Danger several times over before getting back to this one I think....

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  6. I quite liked this one, but then I greatly prefer the medical to the dramatic theatre. I love that line about polar exploration!

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    1. Ah well, that would make a key difference between us Vicki. In terms of settings, I like schools & educational institutes first, then theatres, and hospitals a way behind.

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