Thursday, 24 March 2016
Book of 1947: Final Curtain by Ngaio Marsh
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:
--- 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.