[Madame Lisse’s] face was an oval, beautifully pale, her lashes needed no cosmetic to darken them, her mouth alone proclaimed her art, for it was sharply painted a dark red. Her dress was extremely simple, but in it her body seemed to be gloved rather than clothed. She was not very young, not as young as Chloris Wynne, not perhaps as pretty as Chloris Wynne either, but she had to the last degree the quality that Mandrake, though he knew very little French, spoke of and even thought of as soignée. And, in her own vein, she was exceedingly beautiful.
Madame Lisse fastened three of Jonathan’s orchids in the bosom of her wine-coloured dress, and contemplated herself in the looking-glass. She saw a Renaissance picture smoothly painted on a fine panel. Black, magnolia, and mulberry surfaces, all were sleek and richly glowing. Behind this magnificence, in shadow, was reflected the door of her room, and while she still stared at her image this door opened slowly. ‘What is it, Francis?’ asked Madame Lisse without turning her head.
commentary: This has the best title of any Marsh book, and it is wholly justified by the context. I had read Dancing Footman many years ago (and early on in this re-reading was wholly confident I remembered the plot, victim and villain, and was wholly wrong) and had no idea what the dancing footman did – when I came to the appropriate passage, a long way in, I was wholly delighted. So I will leave it unmentioned for the benefit of anyone who may be reading it soon.
It's a classic detective mystery: a group of people have gathered for a country house weekend. They have been carefully chosen by the trouble-maker host (who I certainly thought deserved murdering), as just about every person has good cause to hate at least one other guest. Tempers are lost, voices are raised, everyone is angry. ‘He is a poltroon as well as a popinjay.’ And then, they are snowed in… and then someone dies.
It has an almost unique plot strand in the grudge that one guest has against another: she was an early subject of cosmetic surgery (called plastic surgery then), and the doctor botched the job so she became hideously disfigured. There is also a very common plot strand (great favourite of mine) in a distinctive Tyrolean cloak – two of the guests possess these, and other chaps borrow them. The ensuing confusion over who is a victim and who is the intended victim brings out the worst in Marsh – always droning on about who was where when, this time she actually reproduces a table of everyone’s activities, with a section each depending on whether X or Y was the true murderee.
And more clothes – I liked the woman who ‘wore Harris tweed and looked…as though she would be tiresome about dogs’. Tweed coats, and a tweed hat, feature in the plot.
A very different woman (the two are rival beauty salon owners)
dressed herself up in what I happen to know is a Chanel model at fifty guineas, and came down for lunch looking like an orchid at a church bazaar.She later takes to her bed
most decoratively. There was a general impression of masses of tawny lace, from which Madame Lisse emerged in pallor and smoothness.Alleyn doesn’t appear till nearly two-thirds of the way in – luckily he is staying nearby, with some of the characters left over from Marsh’s Overture to Death, recently on the blog.
He is asked, interestingly, to consider whether death could have been achieved using
A Busman’s Honeymoonish sort of contraption- a reference to the Dorothy L Sayers book of 1937.
I loved the revelation that inflatable rubber pelicans, ‘bathing birds’, were kept in the pavilion for the use of those swimming in the lake, and I laughed at this description:
A faded photograph presented a Victorian gentleman wearing an ineffable air of hauteur and a costume which suggested that he had begun to dress up as Mr Sherlock Holmes, but, suddenly losing interest, had gone out fishing instead.- moments to remind me how funny Marsh can be, and what a shame she didn’t exercise her humour more.
But still, all in all a very enjoyable book with some very sour characters.
Picture of a 1940 gown from the NYPL.