When she awoke, it was to see a strange lady perched, like some fantastic fowl, on the balustrade near Ricky’s seat. Her legs, clad in scarlet pedal-pushers, were drawn up to her chin which was sunk between her knees. Her hands, jewelled and claw-like, with vermilion talons, clasped her shins, and her toes protruded from her sandals like branched corals. A scarf was wound around her skull and her eyes were hidden by sun-glasses in an enormous frame below which a formidable nose jutted over a mouth whose natural shape could only be conjectured. When she saw Troy was awake and on her feet she unfolded herself, dropped to the floor and advanced with a hand extended. She was six feet tall and about forty-five to fifty years old.
commentary: Jane Austen herself (never married, and ever aware of the financial disadvantages of that state) is not more horrified by older women than Ngaio Marsh. They can’t win. Another older lady in the book is described in disgusted detail, including this:
has no relations in the world and wears a string bag on her head
This is, it would seem, a hairnet or snood, which is perfectly normal and was used by many women, as both Marsh and the (always alleged to be wonderfully charming and polite) Troy would know perfectly well.
The description of Miss Truebody’s sweat, grey hair, false teeth and missing eyebrows is pointless and unpleasant. She is about 50, incidentally, like the one above.
But then the lady above, who might be thought to be making more of an effort, is equally not going to escape the beady Marsh eye – she is going to sunbathe and we are told that her
spinal vertebrae looked like those of a flayed snake.She is ‘wildly and unpleasingly displayed’, she was ‘an uncomfortable spectacle.’ And then there are the ‘skull’ (why? why not head?) and talons above.
Marsh herself was 58 when his book was published. Her disdain for older women can be found throughout her books, and is not attractive.
As you may be guessing, I did not enjoy Spinsters in Jeopardy much. It is more of a thriller than a murder story – Inspector Alleyn, his wife Troy and their appalling son Ricky are travelling in the south of France, and get caught up with nefarious goings-on in a mysterious chateau. It starts something like Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington: a serious-looking event glimpsed from a train. There are two clear villains, whom we are invited to disapprove of from the first moment. Her general disapproval (of men and ladies) is very wearing: she chooses these people to write about (and they are cartoons) and then tells us how awful they are: nice people like the Alleyns will shudder.
I couldn’t get interested in the plot, but became increasingly infuriated by the Alleyn family. The awful inspector is now revealed as someone who can administer anaesthetics for an operation on the kitchen table, and then suddenly tells us that he is also an amateur poet (Inspector Dalgliesh, you were pre-owned). Troy is our Greatest Living Artist, but frightfully modest, so in this book the wealthy art collector turns out to have one of her pictures in the library (a repeated and excruciating trope in the books). The picture is of the unspeakable Ricky, a baby-talking and horrible child. At one point he is in jeopardy: I felt free to wish him out of the plot for longer, at the very least.
Marsh can be so funny and clever and satirical, but there is very little evidence of it in this book. I liked this: there is talk of wicked rituals, and a description of a cloth:
‘There were other things in the pattern that one does not see in altar cloths.’
‘The hoof prints of Anathema!’ Raoul ejaculated.
And there is a splendid description of the shop that sells self-illuminating statues, including a Christmas nativity scene:
Old Marie shouted: ‘Look, Mademoiselle, the Holy Child illuminates himself. And the beasts! One would say the she-ass almost burst herself with good milk. And the lamb is infinitely touching. And the ridiculous price! I cannot bring myself to charge more. It is an act of piety on my part.’I have been working my way through the books, and wonder if it is mostly downhill from here? I’ve already blogged on the next one, Scales of Justice, surely a return to form, but after that? Any Ngaio Marsh fans (looking at you Lucy Fisher) who can tell me if there are good ones left?
Lady in red pedal pushers, and lady in headscarf both from Kristine’s photostream.
The snood is from the Library of Congress, she is a Rosie the Riveter, wearing a net for health and safety reasons.