by Sharon Tucker
It is by politeness, etiquette, and charity that society is saved from falling into a heap of savagery. William of Wykeham (1324 – 1404), Motto of Winchester College and New College, Oxford
One of the pleasures of reading Golden Age detective fiction is living for a time on pages where beautiful manners are celebrated. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh dress the literary stage with detectives whose elegance is a byword to this day. True, Christie’s two detectives, Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, are a bit less conventional than Marsh’s Alleyn, Sayers’s Wimsey, and Allingham’s Campion. After all, Miss Marple is never formally employed by her ‘clients,’ but readers agree she is nemesis personified, and although Poirot is indeed an inquiry agent, he is not British and is therefore delightfully subject to endless continental eccentricities.
Possibly to make their mysteries and detectives more attractive to readers, Sayers, Allingham, and Marsh all used the familiar convention of the second son of a noble family making himself useful in a profession, in these cases, the profession of detection. Roderick Alleyn put his fine mind to work joining the police force after being involved in intelligence work in the Great War. Also having a sparkling intelligence background, Campion too carried on that same sort of work in peacetime by assisting the police, as well as his wide assortment of friends and/or other deserving victims of crime all the while never revealing his real name. Clever, restless Wimsey just likes “investigatin’ things” he tells us, but he does ably assist Scotland Yard with curious cases when he’s not clearing the woman he loves of murder.
Ngaio Marsh, a New Zealander, was the only non-Briton of the lot–the Queens of Golden Age Crime. As a citizen of the Commonwealth, she was instead, famously, a member of that international community of former British colonies rather than a British subject per se. She wrote a grand total of 36 Alleyn novels all of which fell into three easy categories: mysteries involving the theatre, mysteries involving Alleyn’s courtship of and marriage to Royal Academy painter Agatha Troy, and then the individual Alleyn mysteries.
As someone who deeply appreciated all things British, she had a cool outsider’s perspective on the lovely, as well as the unlovely, in their culture and their manners as revealed in Overture to Death (1939) which begins with a death during amateur theatricals. Alleyn meets and is drawn to Troy despite her rudeness in Artists in Crime (1938) as they travel from Fiji back to England aboard a cruise ship. Alleyn then investigates a murder during eccentric religious practices in Death in Ecstasy (1936) to illustrate the final “easy” category. Delightfully, the plastic arts, theatre, and Troy show up unexpectedly here and there in bits and bobs or more throughout Marsh’s works.
Life in a small southwestern British village pre-WWII takes center stage in “Overture to Death.” Seldom has the institution of British spinsterhood been more thoroughly skewered than here in the characters of the Misses Eleanor Prentice and Idris Campanula who by passive aggression and scandal-mongering dominate the otherwise beautiful landscape. The village’s entertainment committee has been called to meet at Pen Cuckoo, the ancestral home of Sir Jocelyn Jernigham, to decide what play will be put on that season to raise money for the local youth organization. The first chapter sets up the principals in this murder mystery, as well as their motives for murder, so the reader has the fun of guessing which unpleasant person will be the victim very early on and the delight of chasing ‘this, then that’ red herring for the rest of the novel until it comes to a most satisfying end. Manners here cloak deadly intent, but seeing what’s under the veneer of civility in the adjacent villages of Chipping and Cloudyfold would curl anyone’s lip.
As Artists in Crime begins, Agatha Troy, about whom there is nothing passive, has staked out an obscure corner of the upper deck on her England-bound cruise ship. She is trying to capture the emotional quality of the receding Suva landscape on canvas as they sail from shore, so when Alleyn invades her space, on the run from a predatory American heiress, she is brusque and dismissive – not an auspicious beginning perhaps for any future relationship. After coming home, Alleyn is so convinced Troy loathes him that when a fatal stabbing occurs in her artist’s colony, he is decidedly uncomfortable leading the investigation, but his urbane manners never slip. However, the victim, who was beautiful but thoroughly unreliable, had outraged so many of the colony that even Troy could have throttled her, so investigation bounces from artist to artist as the would-be murderer with Alleyn doggedly trying to maintain his professional demeanor.
Art was the prevalent religion in the previous novel, but Death in Ecstasy examines a curious religious cult, one of whose prominent members has been poisoned in the midst of an initiation ceremony. Alleyn finds the cult’s members to vary widely from true believer to true investor as he looks into their pasts and finds ulterior motives for murder lurking everywhere among them. It would be too easy to arrest the cult’s youngest and surliest communicant, Maurice Pringle, but as the plot unfolds, we see Pringle’s rudeness as a symptom of a much larger problem. The House of the Sacred Flame has its fingers in too much that is questionable to be genuine, and it is up to Alleyn and his team to see through the smoke.
Ngaio Marsh’s writing career spanned from her first Alleyn novel, A Man Lay Dead published in 1934 to Light Thickens published in 1982, so not only did she see the landscape of England (and New Zealand, of course) change radically, but she has seen how generations have often put aside the manners of their parents and grandparents and have taken up more abbreviated social mannerisms. Some of the old ways that excluded universal suffrage and celebrated colonialism are not missed, but the top hats and tails were lovely.
Perhaps what delights me the most about reading Marsh is that I’ve read less than a third of her Alleyn novels to date. I don’t even mind that several have been re-titled for sale in the U.S., making reading the same novel more than once an inevitability, since I already have favorites that I know I will want to re-read in the future.
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