Monday, 30 May 2016

Swing, Brother Swing by Ngaio Marsh


published 1949
 
Aka A Wreath for Rivera
 
Swing Brother Swing


[The Breezy Bellairs jazz band is planning something different for their nightclub appearance]

‘Did you say,’ asked the tympanist, ‘that we finish up with a funeral march? Was that what you said?’

‘Played in the Breezy Bellairs Manner, Syd.’

‘It was what he said, boys,’ said the pianist. ‘We sign ourselves off with a corpse and muffled drums. Come to the Metronome for a gay evening.’

‘I disagree entirely,’ Mr Rivera interposed. He rose gracefully. His suit was dove-grey with a widish pink stripe. Its shoulders seemed actually to curve upwards. He was bronzed. His hair swept back from his forehead and ears in thick brilliant waves. He had flawless teeth, a slight moustache and large eyes and he was tall. ‘I like the idea,’ he said. ‘It appeals to me. A little macabre, a little odd, perhaps, but it has something. I suggest, however, a slight alteration. It will be an improvement if, on the conclusion of Lord Pastern’s solo, I draw the rod and shoot him. He is then carried out and I go into my hot number. It will be a great improvement.’

‘Listen, Carlos –’

‘I repeat, a great improvement.’ The pianist laughed pointedly and the other grinned.

commentary: So obviously any experienced crime story reader knows that a fake shooting on stage is going to result in death for someone. Especially anyone who has already read Enter A Murderer, Marsh’s earlier book (1935) in which a theatrical performance of a thriller includes a lot of messing around with a gun, and ends in murder. This book is something of a cross between that one, and Death in a White Tie – more toffs in trouble.

Here we have  eccentric Lord Pastern and Bagott -  and this is one of the infuriating aspects of the book, and one Marsh’s editors should have put a stop to. He is Lord Pastern-and-Bagott in effect, all one title, but there is no punctuation in the title, just the three words ‘Pastern and Bagott’. Except sometimes they are called just Pastern. But every time it comes up as the full title, it trips the reader up, it is hard to read and doesn’t make sense, but at the same time it is unnecessary and pointless, and adds absolutely nothing to the book or the characters. And if we read

Lady Pastern and Bagott advanced from the far end of a long room 
and later:
The door opened and Lord Pastern and Bagott came trippingly into the room
-- well, most of us commoners are picturing two people coming in and wondering who the hell Bagott is (the butler? the gigolo? the former governess?) It is not as it if it is a common formation of title in the UK. Maddening.

This irritating lord wants to be the drummer in a jazz band. There is drug smuggling, troubled romances, and a secretive magazine agony uncle. I found the whole thing rather tiresome – Marsh is such a good, funny writer sometimes: then other times, like this one, she plods through a lot of dreary stuff about good taste and being well-born. As ever it is clear who is the nice girl and who isn’t, and there is a funny phrase about a young woman ‘shaking her curls’ at Inspector Alleyn (who is completely irresistible to every woman, apparently, in an extremely unconvincing and annoying way). 

There was an interesting sidelight on the high life then – Felicite’s debutante photo is being described:
Félicité’s eyes, under her triple plumage, stared back with the glazed distaste (so suggestive of the unwitting influence of Mr John Gielgud) that characterizes the modish photograph.
The ‘plumage’ consists of the ostrich feathers which were anSwing brother swing 2 essential piece of headwear for young women being presented at court. I used to imagine them as great giant feathers waving above their heads, but the new era of Google and photos on the internet enabled me to see that they are much neater and more attractive.

There is some implication that they represented the Prince of Wales’s heraldic device, though this doesn’t seem sufficient reason to force all those generations of women to wear them on their head.

The top picture is from the ever-wonderful Gottlieb collection of jazz portraits at the Library of Congress. This is Cab Calloway, most certainly not the gigolo-type, nor likely to be caught up in a murder…
















17 comments:

  1. Not being swayed back to the Marsh-lands yet Moira :)

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    1. This is SO not the one to persuade you Sergio! I will keep checking for the right one for you to try next...

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  2. I have to agree with you, Moira. That name this is annoying. But I do like the music context. And as you say, Marsh was good at portraying life at the time she was writing.

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    1. It just seemed so pointless. But perhaps I was a bit harsh- the book certainly was intresting for the picture of life right then.

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  3. Were the Queen, her ladies in waiting, and the Duchess of Cornwall wearing court dress at the opening of parliament? "Evolution of Court Dress" a PhD subject for someone! You could take in bishops, coachmen, judges (surely time to ditch the rugs).

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    1. A lovely illustrated book could be the result.

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    2. There are two distinct categories of court dress - one is obviously the dress worn by judges and lawyers in the judical court, and then you have the formal Court Dress that was worn to the Royal Courts of Europe, a completely different subject - Kensington Palace have an excellent Court Dress collection and there has been at least one book written on the subject... "Splendour at Court: Dressing for Royal Occasions Since 1700" by Nigel Arch and Joanna Marschner.

      British Court dress was phased out in the late 1950s, 1957/8 was the last year in which debutantes were presented at Court.

      I'm not sure that there is actually a formal Court dress nowadays - there are very strict codes of dressing and requirements, but you aren't obligated to wear a long gown and train or feathers or carry a bouquet any more, or indeed, wear knee breeches and a cutaway coat and waistcoat.

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    3. Thanks Daniel for fascinating info - still room for anothr book, and it obviously should be your project!

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  4. There is a quote from Dennis Wheatley that I read somewhere. The gist is that if you are a jobbing writer, who lives by the pen, then if you wait for inspiration to strike you are likely to starve to death. Best just to start writing...

    By the sounds of it, this was inspired by a letter from the Taxman. Of all the 'Crime Queens' she seems to be the one most likely to slip into cliche. When she is writing about what she knows, her stories seem more assured, whereas the high society stuff always feels a bit forced. As for the impossibly handsome Alleyn, one of the things that I liked about THAT box-set is that Patrick Malahide manages to be very presentable without being an Adonis. Adaptions generally make the characters more handsome or charming, but if they'd did that here, the audience would never had accepted it!

    That double barrel name reminds me of an anecdote that I heard on the BBC series QI. Lord Elgin and Duncan attended a dinner, and found the seat next to him was empty. When he asked who was supposed to be sitting there, he was told "It's for Duncan".

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    1. Now you've reminded me that I must continue my trudge through the boxset - you're quite right, the casting makes both Alleyn and Troy very bearable.
      Great story about the names!

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  5. I do think this is a cracking title, though - the play on words with "swing" (as at the end of a rope, for the murderer - would be too unsubtle if the victim had been hanged) is fantastic for a whodunnit.

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    1. Speaking of titles, I do have a couple of frocks worn by the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava.... one wonders whether in later years, people expected Ava to be Dufferin's secretary/nanny/nurse/glamorous kept woman.

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    2. Yes, clever name, I wonder why it was changed for US audiences - because hanging wasn't the usual method of execution? Though it existed in some states I believe. Yes, exactly, Dufferin and Ava is a brilliantly absurd verison. I seriously when I was very young wondered if there was a connection with Ava Gardener.

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  6. This is one of the last Marsh books I read, and I don't recall whether I liked it or not. I like the idea of it.

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    1. Not the best. I'm reading them out of order and think also that I have some good ones to come, according to others' recommendations.

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