Thursday, 30 March 2017

Death and the Dancing Footman by Ngaio Marsh

 
published 1942


 
Death and the Dancing Footman
 
 


[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.

[later]
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.





















24 comments:

  1. For me I enjoyed the setup of this one, but found as usual the investigation of the crime let Marsh down. The Dancing Footman bit is definitely funny though.

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    1. Yes - she cant't help herself with those long boring middle bits can she? But I could live with that for the incidental joys.

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  2. It is interesting, isn't it, Moira, that Marsh would have included cosmetic surgery as a plot thread. That really wasn't common as a plot thread (I wonder if it is even now?). I've always liked the way Marsh set up her stories, too. You usually get to know some of the characters, etc., before the actual murder(s).

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    1. Well if anyone knows if it's a topic in any other story it will be you! I'll expect you to think hard and adjudicate.

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    2. It's a recent book, but Louisa Young has a lot of detail about the early days of plastic (rather than cosmetic) surgery in WWI in "My Dear I Wanted to Tell You". And in the sequel "The Heroes' Welcome" one of the characters has some rather gruesome cosmetic treatments (chemical peel type things) and I think there's mention of some dodgy techniques (injecting paraffin wax etc).

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    3. Thanks, interesting info. I guess cosmetic surgery did develop from doctors trying to help those wounded in WW1. I remember reading about the paraffin injections, it made me shudder.

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  3. Hmm...I'm glad you haven't spoiled things for me! Haha

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    1. Not even a little bit your kind of book...

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  4. Isn't this the one with the, er, plot device that you figure any mystery writer worth her salt wouldn't use . . . but then Marsh does, and you have to ask why Ronald Knox wasn't standing over her shoulder admonishing her?

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    1. I'm not sure it's the worst one. It's ludicrous, but so are many of her plot devices... I think Overture to Death was worse.

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  5. From now on, I'm going to call myself Madame Lisse....

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    1. Oh YES! It's you to a T. Take it up at once.

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  6. At times it feels as though Marsh was scared by Freeman Wills Croft at an early age and never quite got over it. I suspect that she would really have been much happier saying nasty things about the characters and giving us lots of gossip about behind-the-scenes of whatever the setting of the novel is. But she always drags in those 'If-x-was-in-the-library-then-Y-could-not-have-taken-the-shortcut-to-the-study' discussions that read like a book I had as a teenager that showed one how to program computers with the help of little murder mysteries that could be cracked by giving the computer the right instructions. Solving crimes by mathematics is dull.

    The fact that Alleyn turns up three quarters of the way through does rather suggest that she wasn't that bothered about having him in this book but a) she couldn't be bothered to invent another detective b) the publisher was pressuring her for another Alleyn!

    That quote about the rubber pelicans was wonderful.

    ggary

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    1. That's excellent analysis: she can be so funny - and as you say gossip-y and bitchy, and I can never understand why she turns it on and off. But feeling she 'ought' to be more of a traditional crime writer is a very good explanation, it's very convincing.

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  7. The bit about the matching coats reminded me of when I was six (but not Christopher Robin), and Janet Donais, Chrissy D'Amico and I had identical car coats and one day all left school with the wrong coat. I remember exactly what it looked like: small wale bright red-orange corduroy, dull red and grey plaid flannel lining, hood and toggle closures. So stylish -- no wonder three of us had the same one!

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    1. It sounds like a beautiful coat (I'd like one now) but it's very specific for there to be 3 identical ones! Were you different sizes and shapes - was someone squeezed into a too-small one while another was swamped...?

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    2. I think it was sold by Sears, so it's not too odd that we had the same one. Most of the clothes I had as a kid that weren't made by my mom were from Sears. And the three of us were pretty close in size and shape, so that didn't clue us in. I had no idea I had the wrong one until one of the other moms called about it!

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    3. If you were writing novels that would be the start of something big - what? Maybe you find a note in your pocket, but it's meant for the other girl?

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  8. I like country house mysteries, but I don't think I will go back and reread this one, even though I don't remember a thing about it.

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    1. I'm never too sure where you are up to with Marsh - will you be reading any soon? I always think they'll be handy for Rich's Crimes of the Century, as she wrote a book most years in her heyday, but somehow it rarely works out.

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    2. I am glad you asked since looking into made me realize that I don't have all the remaining books by Marsh, and I thought I did. Last book I read was Night at the Vulcan, August 2012. The 15 before that I read in 2003, all in two months time. Of the remaining 16 books, I have nine. I liked Night at the Vulcan but it wasn't as enjoyable as I had remembered and I guess other books have called to me more since then.

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    3. If the books are not drawing you in you should probably leave them for now... not as if you don't have anything else to read!

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  9. I had completely the wrong idea why the footman would be dancing, the actual occurrence was much better. And it is not one of Marsh's titles which should be read in a surprising way. (Scales of Justice, say.)

    It was quite enjoyable, but not to difficult to guess the general idea of the solution. I confess I did not totally understand the description of how the murder happened.

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    1. I loved the footman, I thought it made up for some weaker aspects...
      I can't remember much of the solution, which I think tells its own story as this was posted only in March.

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