Friday, 4 September 2015

Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh



published 1938








The ball given by Lady Carrados for her daughter Bridget O’Brien was an unqualified success. That is to say that from half-past ten when Sir Herbert and Lady Carrados took up their stand at the head of the double staircase and shook hands with the first guests until half-past three the next morning when the band, white about the gills and faintly glistening, played the National Anthem, there was not a moment when it was not difficult for a young man to find the debutantes with whom he wished to dance and easy for him to avoid those by whom he was not attracted. There was no ominous aftermath when the guests began to slide away to other parties, to slip through the doors with the uncontrollable heartlessness of the unamused….

Outside the house it was unseasonably chilly. The mist made by the breathing of the watchers mingled with drifts of light fog. As the guests walked up the strip of red carpet from their cars to the great door they passed between two wavering masses of dim faces. And while the warmth and festive smell of flowers and expensive scents reached the noses of the watchers, thought the great doors was driven the smell of mist so that footmen in the hall told each other from time to time that for June it was an uncommonly thickish night outside.


observations: The atmosphere of the 1930s rises out of this book beautifully, along with the mist – a very specific version of course, the world of rich, well-born people in London, along with those who serve them. There is blackmail going on, with money changing hands during the big parties. Inspector Alleyn looks for help from a Lord who is part of the milieu, and he is also pursuing his romance with Troy, who is at the edges of the case. Someone is murdered in a taxi, with the driver in front, and with the murderer then impersonating the dead man – all of which seems quite unbelievable.

For once I paid attention to Marsh’s endless ‘who exactly was in the room at this point? And where did you go next?’ and as a result solved the murder relatively early on. But of course the joy of these Marsh books isn’t the investigation, it’s the setting and the characters. Sadly, Death in a White Tie wasn’t as funny as some of her others, she seemed to be holding back in that direction. There is a very brief but hilarious scene where a novice policeman dresses up as a chair-mender in order to watch a suspect – “Why are you presenting the Cries of London to an astonished world?” Alleyn says, as the man completely fails to do his job (while perhaps quite competently mending a chair). This reminded me of how funny Marsh can be when she puts her mind to it - could have done with more of that, and less of the tragedy of very rich women who are exhausted from planning social events and full of fear that their past is going to come out, and they may have to pay twice the secretary’s annual wage in blackmail. (Sorry, I think she mentions the Bolsheviks again, and it must have had an effect on me.)

The picture shows debutantes going to a ball in 1937.

Plenty more Ngaio Marsh to be found on the blog – click on the label below to pull them up.








14 comments:

  1. Darn, this was one of the ones I was hoping to tackle to see if my luck with Marsh might turn for the better . Hmm, I remained unconvinced! Thanks Moira :)

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    1. Sorry - I saw you were thinking of reading this one and I winced! someone should have told her - be amusing and broad-minded and generous-spirited. She did it in some books and the results were so much better...

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  2. I love Marsh's trademark wit too, Moira. This one does have a great atmosphere, though, and although you wouldn't call it a period piece - well, I don't - it does give a slice of that life, so to speak. She does have some great character development and, in my opinion, created some solid strong female characters. A bit ahead of her time, I'd have said, except that Sayers, Christie and a few others did too.

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    1. A nicely-worded judgement Margot, and you are right about her good female characters - something to be grateful for.

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  3. Years since I read this, but I remember enjoying it - and working out who the villain was. The murder is unbelievable - yes, but isn't this so often the case with GA crime?

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    1. Yes of course you're right, it always is. But that's the test of the good author: can they get away with it? Nobody in their right minds would plan to murder someone in the methods in most of the books...

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  4. I love "Lord Gospell" and feel sorry for some of the peripheral characters, but many of them are creeps. Can't stand Lady C's "bright" daughter.

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    1. Yes, a real mixture, and I agree with you about Lord, he was nice.

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  5. It is sad, I read this since 2000 and I still don't remember a thing about it. But, when I was reading them, I was "binge" reading them, one after another, and bought all the rest in the series, so I must have been enjoying them. The most recent one I read a couple of years ago and it did not impress me, although there were enjoyable elements and it was set in the theater. Time to read another one sometime in 2016.

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    1. I just think they vary so much - I read one, and really enjoy it, and embark on another: and then the second one isn't that entertaining. It's as if there were two different authors....

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  6. Moira, I have never read Marsh though I know her books are held in high esteem. Perhaps, one of these days. I think, atmosphere and wit are a fine combination for any novel.

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    1. I know you often like to read very English books, Prashant, and these ones are - though some of them are set in New Zealand!

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