AKA Night at the Vulcanpublished 1951
[Martyn Tarne is an aspiring actress: penniless, she has taken a job as a dresser in a theatre]
But as she turned to go she saw herself, cruelly reflected in the long cheval-glass. It was not, of course, the first time she had seen herself that night; she had passed before the looking-glasses a dozen times and had actually polished them, but her attention had been ruthlessly fixed on the job in hand and she had not once focused her eyes on her own image. Now she did so. She saw a girl in a yellow sweater and dark skirt with black hair that hung in streaks over her forehead. She saw a white, heart-shaped face with smudges under the eyes and a mouth that was normally firm and delicate but now drooped with fatigue. She raised her hand, pushed the hair back from her face and stared for a moment or two longer. Then she switched off the light and blundered across the passage into the greenroom. Here, collapsed in an armchair with her overcoat across her, she slept heavily until morning.
commentary: In general I bow to my friend Lucy Fisher’s views on Ngaio Marsh – she is an expert on the books, and this is one of her favourites. In her very useful list of the Marsh books, she says
Her masterpiece and a Cinderella story set in the theatre. Seen largely through the eyes of an aspiring actress who gives the narrative a witty flavour.I’m not sure I saw it as a masterpiece, but it is very readable and enjoyable. The murder and the arrival of Inspector Alleyn are very late, which is always a good thing in a Marsh book.
The first long section describes the final rehearsals for a new play, one that is beset with affairs and rivalries and nepotism and general problems. (The play sounds dire in fact.) All the details have the ring of authenticity – Marsh used her own theatrical background to great effect in many of her books, but never more so than in this one. The horrible dressing-rooms, the hissing of the gasfires, the tubs of make-up, the bitching, the flowers for the stars, the backstage staff, everyone smoking and drinking the whole time – it’s all there.
But I wasn’t that taken with our heroine Martyn – first off, what a ridiculous first name, which no-one comments on in the book. (I suppose if your own name is Ngaio you might have a different view.) But I found the schoolgirl fairytale aspects irritating – she is penniless and reduced to sleeping secretly in the theatre, above, but
OH, SPOILER, YOU WOULD NEVER GUESS
is going to end up with an important role in the play.
As Alleyn says:
‘Miss Tarne was the sole female dresser and she’d been promoted overnight to what I believe I should call starletdom. Which in itself seems to me to be a rum go. I’ve always imagined female dressers to be cups-of-tea in alpaca aprons and not embryo actresses.’I thought she was rather feeble. There were also the usual tiresome remarks about gay characters, and a rather unnecessary scene of marital rape.
On the plus side, I liked a harassed young woman coining this description:
‘It’s twenty sides of hopeless hell. Honestly, it is.’And an early use of the quintessential modern UK phrase, ‘early doors’:
And at two o’clock the queues for the early doors began to form up in Carpet Street.- apparently that’s its origin, though it is used in all kinds of situations these days.
And a flash of just how funny Marsh could be when she was in the mood – the two policemen are investigating gifting in the theatre:
‘The standard for first night keepsakes seems to be set at a high level,’ Alleyn muttered. ‘This is a French clock, Fox, with a Sevres face encircled with garnets. What do you suppose the gentleman gave the lady?’
‘Would a tiara be common?’ asked Fox.
‘Let’s go next door and see.’Overall, a mixed verdict from me.
HOWEVER, I do have one major complaint, which is that in the early part of the book there is much mention of a fancy dress event, the Combined Arts Ball, and possible costumes are designed and planned and sewn. But in the event, no-one goes to the Ball, we see not a glimpse of it or its outfits – the murder takes precedence.
This was a sad disappointment to Clothes in Books, always a fan of fancy dress. It’s like Chekhov’s gun – you can’t be going on about a costume party, and raising our hopes, and then dashing them like that. Tut, Ms Marsh. Murder is a small crime in comparison.
In niche blogging, CiB has looked at the role of the theatrical dresser before now, as well as more general theatrical settings in a joint blog with Christine Poulson.
Picture is from the Clover Vintage Tumblr, a 1951 ensemble, and a lot more cheery than Martyn ever seems to be.