RogerBW's Blog

Died in the Wool, Ngaio Marsh 20 February 2017

1945 classic English detective fiction; thirteenth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Florence Rubrick, sheep station owner and local MP, vanished one night from her home; her body was found some weeks later, packed into a bale of wool. Eighteen months later, Alleyn is hunting for spies in New Zealand, and informally takes on the case.

This is a surprisingly fiddly wartime mystery. Alleyn, operating as himself this time, is asked by one of the residents of Mount Moon to look into the matter privately, and since there's also secret research going on there (!) he agrees.

"You're disappointed in my work, sir," he whispered dolorously. "You're disgusted and I'm sure I don't blame you. Put it bluntly, this expert's been one too many for me. He's got into that room and he's got away with the stuff and I don't know who he is or how he did it. It's disgraceful. I'd be better in the Middle East."

The principal job here is certainly the murder mystery, though, with the usual array of suspects: the weak-nerved research type and his prospective girlfriend, the hearty young military man, the secretary-companion, and a servant… but not the widower, as he died "of grief" a few months after his wife (naq, tvira gung uvf vyyarff jnf ynetryl gur erfhyg bs fgerff pnhfrq ol uvf jvsr, naq ur jnf qrrcyl va ybir jvgu gur frpergnel-pbzcnavba naq fur jvgu uvz, guvf frrzf engure bqq va vgfrys; vg'f arire rkcynvarq). A few of the workers on the station are also potential suspects, and most of them have some sort of motive.

She put her work down in her lap. A thread of scarlet wool trickled over her black dress and fell in a little pool on the floor.

Much of this book is about decoding Florence Rubrick from people's memories of her: clearly she wasn't universally loved, but she turns out in practice to have been the sort of petty tyrant who's nearly universally hated. Because all the physical evidence is long since gone, Alleyn has to rely almost entirely on the memories and accounts of the people who were present, which of course introduces its own confusions and biases even from people who aren't trying to cover up a murder.

"And the more she talked about getting rid of enemy agents in this country the more I wondered if she might be one herself. She used to say that we oughtn't to be afraid to use what was good in Nazi methods, their youth-training schemes and fostering of nationalistic ideas, and she used to come down very hard on anything like independent critical thinking. It was all right, of course. Lots of people think that way, all the die-hards, you might say. She read a lot of their pre-war books, too. And she didn't like Jews. She used to say they were parasites. I'd get to thinking about her this way and then I'd kind of come down with a bump and call myself crazy."

It's a shame to miss Fox and the usual crowd, and very little of Alleyn's personality is visible here – pretty much, he admits that he's out of his depth as far as the station's operations are concerned, and so gets a hostile witness to explain them to him rather than riding over him as the local police clearly had. Descriptive passages of the New Zealand landscape do their best to make up for it.

"Out there are the plateau, the cincture of mountains, the empty sparkling air. To the north, more mountains, a plain, turbulent straits, another island, thirteen thousand miles of sea and at the far end, you."

The book feels remarkably plodding at times, considering that it's no longer than most novels of the period, and certainly I rarely felt enthused to dive back into it after a break. The ending is quite sudden, and the explanations are given in letters after the fact to Fox and Troy. The logic doesn't entirely hold together, but the characters are solid, and they're why I'd recommend reading this if you do at all.

Followed by Final Curtain.

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