RogerBW's Blog

Singing in the Shrouds, Ngaio Marsh 20 August 2017

1958 classic English detective fiction; twentieth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The passengers aboard the Cape Farewell are travelling to South Africa; but it seems that the Flower Murderer who's been plaguing London is among their number.

So it's Alleyn versus a serial killer (which I know is an anachronistic term), and that means a significant change in the processes of detection and deduction. Trying to work out why will be, by definition, pointless.

"These cases," he said, "are the worst of the lot from our point of view. We can pick a card-sharp or a conman or a sneak-thief or a gunman or a dozen other bad lots by certain mannerisms and tricks of behaviour. They develop occupational habits and they generally keep company with their own kind. But not the man who, having never before been in trouble with the police, begins, perhaps latish in life, to strangle women at ten-day intervals and leave flowers on their faces.

Instead Alleyn has to concentrate on who, out of the small number of passengers, is actually a murderer rather than just a horrible person; he's somewhat assisted by his team at home checking alibis, and he hopes he can reach a conclusion before someone else dies.

This is also, almost inadvertantly, a book of the last days of passenger ships: oddly there isn't really much sense of the end of an era here, though 1958 is the year both the Comet 4 and Boeing 707 came into service, and mixed cargo/passenger ships like the Cape Farewell wouldn't have been long for this world. It may just be Marsh's misanthropy, but after reading this one of the great appeals of the jetliner seems to be the chance to avoid being stuck for days on end and forced to socialise with some of these people, even if it also means no more shipboard romances.

Still, the story fairly rattles along even if the journey wouldn't. Marsh makes good use of the enclosed setting, and rapidly clears the crew (including the terribly stereotyped gay steward, though Alleyn at least treats him with some respect) to determine that the killer must be one of the passengers. There's the young couple falling in love, of course, the sexpot, the Most Obvious Suspect, the spinster, the television celebrity, the horrid middle-aged couple who have no ear for social cues and will always say the vilest thing possible…

(And some people see classism there, but the Cuddys' sin is not that they don't know Shakespeare, it's that they're unable to be part of a conversation that touches on things they don't know, and like self-centred children must constantly make everything about them and their interests.)

Miss Abbott felt angry with Mrs. Dillington-Blick because she was being silly over three men. Mrs. Cuddy felt angry with her because three men were being silly over her…

Several of the characters may be fairly awful, but they're still interesting, which is a tough trick to pull off. The murderer's psychology is unconvincing, but Alleyn seems to find it just as implausible as I did, more an excuse than an explanation. Alleyn is the only recurring character, though, which I suppose might make this a good point to start if you don't want to begin at the beginning.

Followed by False Scent.

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