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.