Thursday, 24 March 2016

Book of 1947: Final Curtain by Ngaio Marsh


published 1947

Final Curtain



Troy’s first impression of Miss Sonia Orrincourt was of a whitish apparition that fluttered down the stairs from the far side of the gallery. Her progress was accompanied by a number of chirruping noises. As she reached the hall and crossed it, Troy saw that she wore a garment which even in the second act of a musical extravaganza would still have been remarkable. Troy supposed it was a negligée.

‘Well, for heaven’s sake,’ squeaked Miss Orrincourt, ‘look who’s here! Ceddie!’ 

She held out both her hands and Cedric took them. ‘You look too marvellous, Sonia,’ he cried. ‘Where did it come from?’

‘Darling, it’s a million years old. Oh, pardon me,’ said Miss Orrincourt, inclining towards Troy, ‘I didn’t see –’

Millamant stonily introduced her. Fenella and Paul, having moved away from the sofa, Miss Orrincourt sank into it. She extended her arms and wriggled her fingers. ‘Quick! Quick! Quick!’ she cried babyishly. ‘Sonia wants a d’ink.’

 
commentary: This is my contribution for Rich Westwood’s Crimes of the Century meme over at his Past Offences blog – the year for March is 1947.

I’ve been reading quite a few Marsh books over the past year, and would put this one at better than middling. There’s some very familiar territory here – the highly eccentric family is there in full, though not nearly so annoying as those blooming Lampreys, and I do like the way they all say 'T'uh!' all the time. But there’s a shortcut to their eccentricities, in that Troy (the inspector’s wife, famous artist, please keep up) is going down to stay with them, and is provided with a long essay on their foibles from old Alleyn-friend Nigel Bathgate. That seemed to me to be cheating – 'show not tell' and all that. This one is a theatrical family, another familiar Marsh trope, and Troy is to paint a portrait of Sir Henry Ancred, the patriarch. He has a large and complicated family, and has taken up with a much younger woman – Sonia, above – whom all consider to be common as muck. (Another character is described as MC, which I presume means middle-class, as opposed to the toff-ish Ancreds).

There is a lot of funny business with wills, and relations being in and out of favour, and a murder quite late on. There is endless discussion of poisons which might or might not have been used – in fact the mechanics are probably fairly obvious to most readers, but that may be because we have all read Agatha Christie’s Pale Horse (published much later, 1961).

I’m sure Marsh researched the medical details, but she doesn’t seem to have looked too closely at legal matters: all wills are automatically invalidated on marriage, so under normal circs no-one would ever make a will shortly before his or her wedding, there would be no point. No-one seems to know that, including the venerable old family solicitor, and it would have taken some fun out of the back-and-forths here, and made some of the activities not impossible but extremely unlikely, given that a marriage is very much due to happen. There also seems to be an inheritance problem when it’s all over – but then the ending of the book IS extremely and disappointingly abrupt. Someone is arrested, and Alleyn kindly explains the murders to Troy, but we are given no clue as to what will happen to the rest of the Ancred family.

And while I am complaining, there is the usual Marsh dreadful failure in her depiction of a gay character – as ever it seems surprising when she moved in artistic and theatrical circles, and often shows a quite sympathetic or liberal side in other areas.

There is a spectacularly horrible child in this one, and much scorn shown towards ‘advanced’ child-rearing and Freudianism.

I did enjoy reading it, and the story gallops along very satisfactorily; though it seemed a shame that Marsh put so many different aspects of life into it, then just abandoned everything in the last chapter.

As a book of 1947 – well, Inspector Alleyn is coming back from having been away for several years (secret war work in NZ, see eg Colour Scheme). There is a school billeted onto the Ancreds in their stately home. But Marsh plainly couldn’t be bothered with rationing and shortages (still endemic in 1947) so gives an excuse for the Ancreds living a life of great luxury (grow their own veg, have plenty of wood on the estate for fires), with only the shortage of servants to complain about. It sounds something of a fairytale in fact.

In a post on an earlier Marsh book I considered the question of young women’s hats being called ‘caps’ – Troy duly appears in a red cap in this one. Talking about John Dickson Carr this week I commented on the frequent appearance of fur coats and fur collars – this is also true of Marsh. She started as she meant to go on in the first book, A Man Lay Dead, and we used this photo:

Final Curtain 2

--- and there are plenty of references to furs in this one too. Interestingly, Sonia bought a fur coat second hand for £200. She thought it was dirt cheap: I thought that sounded a lot for 1947.

The picture at the top is from Kristine’s photostream, as is the photo of the ladies with fur collars.
















30 comments:

  1. I think you make a really interesting point, Moira - and one I hadn't thought of before - about the will. It really does make no sense, given the context. And you're right that Marsh never did do a great job of portraying gay characters, which is rather surprising when you think about her background. This may not be Marsh's best, but I really am fond of Agatha Troy, so I do like the stories that feature her. And as I've said before, even Marsh at her weakest is better than plenty at their best.

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    1. I feel I'm nitpicking a bit, because overall I did enjoy it, and am very much of your opinion on both Marsh and Troy...

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  2. Still not convinced about Dame Ngaio Moira! But I do have this one, somewhere ... And smashing photo of Rita Hayworth, presumably (given the blonde look) taken during the filming of LADY FROM SHANGHAI in Acapulco?

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    1. Well-spotted Sergio, I'm very impressed! Tbh, I didn't quite trust the caption which is why I didn't say what the picture was. I think she's almost unrecognizable. I did see the film a long time ago but remember nothing about it. (A frequent occurrence for me these days...)

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  3. I like Panty! But she's only six - she couldn't have carried a tea tray laden with cups, a full teapot, and a hot water jug. It took me some time to realise Marsh was sending up the progressive child rearing theories, just shuddered whenever they were spouted. "We just have to find out WHY you felt like that, don't we, Patricia?" And using the kids as slave labour in the garden! I have a soft spot for the ghastly Sonia. And Panty (supposed to be horrible) is so much nicer than the Alleyn's precocious son. (Can't remember whodunnit now.)

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    1. Yes, I think she kept moving the goalposts with Panty (was Marsh childless herself?) but she added to the joy. And yes, always like those common girls from the chorus... and there is a moment where even Marsh gives Sonia gives her some credit, when she has a long and endearing conversation with (I think) Fenella.

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  4. Hmm, fur prices - 1947 - that would be about the time of the HUGE London freeze, when warm clothing was at a premium and also in super limited quantity. (Remember Life After Life?)

    Also, depends on the fur, but I imagine that a really good fur coat would be quite pricey.

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    1. Speaking of Kate Atkinson, I just read the last one, A God in Ruins. Interested to see what you think of this one!

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    2. I can't believe I still haven't read the new Atkinson! Must get on with it. As Marsh was writing at the time, I assume she was right, but it does sound like a fortune...

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    3. Were furs rationed? Sonia may be blithely admitting that she got it on the black market.

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    4. Sonia says this:
      This coat’s rather nice, don’t you think? It belonged to a lady who was in the Wrens. I saw it advertised. She’d never worn it. Two hundred and dirt cheap, really.’

      So an air of slightly odd business, if not actually black market.

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  5. So enjoyable to read as always, Moira! I read this one - and all of Marsh - so long ago that I remember nothing except thale killer, and that was because I loved the name. Marsh hasn't aged well with me, but she was fine at the time until the latest Christie came at Christmas.

    I've been getting into Helen McCliy a lot lately, and I often think of you as I'm reading her. Her descriptions of everything are so vivid, and that includes the fashions. Have you read her?

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    1. I think well done for remembering - I read it last week and had to think for a minute! Though it did remind me slightly of an early PD James in terms of the motive...

      I read a Helen McCloy a while back and greatly enjoyed doing a post on various dresses - you're right, I should read more of her. Very atmospheric.

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  6. It's quite fun, although you can tell that she had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the '30s. Some of the later books feel as if they are taking place in a kind of time-warp where the '60s never happened.

    Did you ever see the Marsh adaptions that BBC did in the '90s? Patrick Malahide and Belinda Lang as Alleyn and Troy, together with William Simons as Fox and a whole host of British acting talent. One of them was this story, and it's quite fun. With Graham Crowden as Sir Henry you know that it's not going to be done entirely straight, and whilst it's not a send-up, no-one seems to be taking it entirely seriously, either.

    The details about the poison are a bit iffy, and whilst the broad details are more or less correct, I'm not sure that it would work exactly the way it does in the book.

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    1. I read this and thought 'there is nothing I'd like better over Easter weekend than to watch a BBC version of Final Curtain on a quiet afternoon' and have ordered the DVD to be delivered tomorrow. You are to blame!
      Yes, your description is correct: she wrote this book set in a no-man's-time of the 30s, then threw in just enough extras to keep it contemporary.

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    2. Let us know if that BBC adaptation is worth watching, please - I remember being very put off because they made enormous changes to the plot of Hand in Glove and then I refused to watch any more.

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    3. Oh dear, that doesn't bode well. I will watch and see...

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    4. Oh, they're pretty good adaptions. They were done by the same team who did the Joan Hickson/Miss Marple series, and have the same level of style and competence. They decided to place the show sometime during the late 40s (round about 1948 I think) regardless of when the books were written. I seem to recall that HAND IN GLOVE altered the story in order to give Troy more screen time, rather in the way that the Beeb's series of Margery Allingham's CAMPION used to include his manservant Lugg in stories where he originally didn't appear. To be honest that sort of thing doesn't really bother me. What's the point of bringing Troy into the stories and then not using her? It's the sort of thing that happens in all adaptions.

      With this and DEPARTMENT OF QUEER COMPLAINTS I've been costing you a lot of money recently!

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    5. You absolutely have! I was going to make a joke to that effect, but I thought it was unfair when I have every intention of enjoying my purchases....

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    6. We watched it as a family on Easter Sunday - great fun. Slimmed down from the book, they removed a lot of extraneous detail, but still pretty faithful to the story, and nicely done. I've now got another 8 or so episodes in the same boxset...

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  7. Well, I did read this one and probably no more than 10ish years ago, but I read a lot of them after the other so maybe they just all ran together. I remember enjoying the ones with Troy in them more than others.

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    1. I like Troy, and in this one I did really enjoy the details of her painting. Sometimes I find Marsh's descriptions of art rather pretentious, but she caught my attention this time.

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  8. Moira: Not having read the book I am not sure of the full circumstances of the will (a good lawyerly hedging preamble) but not all wills, at least in Saskatchewan, are automatically invalid on marriage (I leave aside the issue of common law relationships and wills). If you sign a will in Saskatchewan before marriage that contains a specific clause that, pursuant to the Wills Act, the will is made in contemplation of your marriage to a specific person and usually including the date the will will not be invalidated by the marriage. The statutory provision is there to allow people to have valid wills without having to rush to get a new will signed after marriage.

    Many years ago at a marriage preparation course I tried to make a little joke about this process. I said that if you wanted, instead of signing a will with the contemplation clause, you would at the wedding once the vows were made and you were signing the marriage register already have two witnesses for that purpose and you could have the will there as well and get it signed. There was some polite laughter. Then I noticed a guy in the front row furiously making a note. I think he took me seriously. His fiancée looked ready to kill him and me.

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    1. Thanks for the details and the funny story Bill. My husband and I recently re-made our wills, and I don't think our nice friendly solicitor was impressed with some of the jokes my husband kept making...
      Good to know what to do in Saskatchewan. I had friends who married recently, and they had to go and sign their new wills between wedding and honeymoon - I suspect that if there had been an easy way round that they would have taken it...

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  9. From the description and comments, I know I wouldn't enjoy this one, especially if Marsh had to be dragged out of the 1930s and didn't depict gay people well, and opposed progressive child-rearing.

    But I love the two photos. Must say, although I abhor fur now, those coats and hats were lovely.
    I remember at 5, when we lived below a furrier and his spouse, that I would look at the fox stoles upstairs and
    be amazed at seeing their eyes, noses and claws. Brrr.
    That memory gives me chills. Thankfully, no one wears
    those any more.

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    1. I know what you mean - fur IS so attractive, even if we disapprove.
      Whenever I am reading a book and thinking or saying in the blogpost 'well you have to put up with some comments-of-their-time', I'm always mentally having a reservation: 'except for Kathy D, who shouldn't read it at all.' True here.

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  10. True about me. I have read some books where I put up with the backwardness of the time, but with a limit.

    I mean I love Nero Wolfe books, but the language of one threw me and the attitude towards women might put me off, but the books are so much fun, I just put up with it.

    "The Grapes of Wrath" is a favorite book, but a friend pointed out there's racism in it. I was crushed, but
    haven't taken it off my list.

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    1. I think we each have to make our decisions on a case by case basis...

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  11. Not one for me though I am hoping to read something by her at some point.

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    1. Surely there's something in the tubs? You'll like her taste for gruesome murders with a a lot of horrible detail.

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