RogerBW's Blog

Death in Ecstasy, Ngaio Marsh 25 September 2016

1936 classic English detective fiction; fourth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. At a meeting of the House of the Sacred Flame, a small cult, the Chosen Vessel drinks from the Flaming Cup, gabbles nonsensically, and dies of a dose of sodium cyanide.

The setting is the first odd thing about this book. I know a certain amount about spiritualism, Theosophy, and fundamentalist evangelicalism, but very little about other new religious movements of this sort of period. When I see a group like the House of the Sacred Flame, a small personality-cult of the kind that G. K. Chesterton had parodied in The Eye of Apollo (1911), I assume it's crooked; but would a reader in 1936 have done so?

Cheek by jowl with these, in gloomy astonishment, were ranged a number of figures whom Nigel supposed must represent the more robust gods and goddesses of Nordic legend. The gods wore helmets and beards, the goddesses helmets and boots. They all looked as though they had been begun by Epstein and finished by a frantic bricklayer.

It's clear we're not supposed to like the organisation, its priest, or its seven Initiates.

All of them would have suggested that they went to the House of the Sacred Flame because it was the right thing to do. M. de Ravigne would not have replied that he went because he was madly in love with Cara Quayne; Cara Quayne would not have admitted that she found in the services an outlet for an intolerable urge towards exhibitionism. Miss Wade would have died rather than confess that she worshipped, not God, but the Reverend Jasper Garnette.

But are we supposed to be surprised when (for this is after all a detective story) they do in fact pretty much all turn out to have dark secrets?

I think one has to read this very much from Alleyn's side, or one would wreck oneself on the rocks of snobbishness. Not only is he always right, his tastes and preferences are always the right ones, and he represses a shudder on learning that the sacramental wine is in fact Invalid Port. But this isn't just a character study; it's the book where for me Marsh has come into her own as a detective writer. All right, there are indulgences, as when Alleyn speculates on how various writers would resolve the case if it were in their fiction:

If it's Agatha Christie, Miss Wade's occulted guilt drips from every page. Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter would plump for Pringle, I fancy. Inspector French would go for Ogden.

but while the evidence is, at best, pretty thin, and yet again the villain gives him/herself away during a discussion of the crime (though admittedly it's not a reconstruction this time), it is possible to work out from various inconsistencies and trivial details who is the guilty party.

All right, I don't think taking heroin makes one bright-eyed and enthusiastic while up, then nervous and twitchy while down; that sounds more like cocaine. And I'm dubious about taking either of them in a cigarette that still has enough tobacco in it to be smokable; but never mind. A more serious problem is the two utterly stereotyped gay acolytes, all scratch-your-eyes-out posing and too too delicate, despised by everyone, who probably seemed terribly daring at the time but now come over as even more thoroughly obsolete than any non-white characters would (had they been in the book at all). (And it seems Marsh had gay friends, which just makes this hard to understand.) Nigel Bathgate continues to act as Alleyn's Watson, and has very little to do.

The other characters are more interesting: rarely sympathetic, but one can at least see how they got to be the way they are, and indeed why they ended up associated with this cult despite its superficial ridiculousness. And there are some bits of writing that are lovely.

In the days when women of breeding did not stand in queues to get a front seat at a coroner's inquest or a murder trial, melodrama provided an authentic thrill. Nowadays melodrama is not good enough when with a little inconvenience one can watch a real murderer turn green round the gills, while an old gentleman in a black cap, himself rather pale, mumbles actor-proof lines about hanging by the neck until you are dead and may God have mercy on your soul. No curtain ever came down on a better tag.

Followed by Vintage Murder.

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