RogerBW's Blog

Death in a White Tie, Ngaio Marsh 06 November 2016

1938 classic English detective fiction; seventh of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Someone's blackmailing London's high society as the Season begins, and Alleyn asks a friend who moves in those circles to look into it; murder will be done.

When you know something about a crime, never say to someone "I have more information but I'll tell you later". This never ends well.

I think I may need to back off a bit on my Marsh/Allingham chronological reading, and mix in more books of other sorts. I've been enjoying these, certainly, but shortly before the murder I was confident, and the moment Alleyn first interviewed a particular suspect I was absolutely sure, that that specific person was the murderer. And I was right. That's the sort of feeling, watching the various clues fall into place and admiring the misdirections, that one's supposed to get on a second reading of a book.

It's always good to get contemporary atmosphere: this is still the era of London fogs (the Clean Air Act wasn't until 1956), and when oriental porcelain was all the rage. And there's a distinct feeling that the whole Season is probably obsolete anyway, starting when Alleyn's mother finds herself with a granddaughter to bring out since the intermediate generation is posted to Fiji:

"Why has Sarah got to come out? Why can't she simply emerge?"

"That I cannot tell you, but George and Grace certainly could. I rather see it, I must say, Roderick. A girl has such fun doing her first season. There is nothing like it, ever again. And now we have gone back to chaperones and all the rest of it, it really does seem to have some of the old glamour."

"You mean debutantes have gone back to being treated like hothouse flowers for three months and taking their chance as hardy perennials for the rest of their lives?"

This feels in places like an counterpart to The Fashion in Shrouds, published earlier in the same year: there's that same feeling of decaying, overheated, desperate fun, and the sense that things can't last. I'm going to quote at length, because this is a key passage for the sensibility I'm picking up from this particular year:

… as he edged past dancing couples and over the feet of sitting chaperones he suddenly felt as if an intruder had thrust open all the windows of this neat little world and let in a flood of uncompromising light. In this cruel light he saw the people he liked best and they were changed and belittled. He saw his nephew Donald, who had turned aside when they met in the hall, as a spoilt, selfish boy with no honesty or ambition. He saw Evelyn Carrados as a woman haunted by some memory that was discreditable, and hag-ridden by a blackmailer. His imagination leapt into extravagance, and in many of the men he fancied he saw something of the unscrupulousness of Withers, the pomposity of Carrados, and the stupidity of old General Halcut-Hackett. He was plunged into a violent depression that had a sort of nightmarish quality. How many of these women were what he still thought of as "virtuous"? And the debutantes? They had gone back to chaperones and were guided and guarded by women, many of whose own private lives would look ugly in this flood of hard light that had been let in on Lord Robert's world. The girls were sheltered by a convention for three months but at the same time they heard all sorts of things that would have horrified and bewildered his sister Mildred at their age. And he wondered if the Victorian and Edwardian eras had been no more than freakish incidents in the history of society and if their proprieties had been as artificial as the paint on a modern woman's lips. This idea seemed abominable to Lord Robert and he felt old and lonely for the first time in his life.

Some people are in no doubt about what is wrong with the world:

"Every guest! Every guest! But, damn it, sir, the man was murdered in a bloody cab, not a bloody ballroom. Some filthy bolshevistic fascist," shouted the General, having a good deal of difficulty with this strange collection of sibilants. He slightly dislodged his upper plate but impatiently champed it back into position. "They're all alike!" he added confusedly. "The whole damn boiling."

Others have their own opinions, like the Jewish girl being brought out by a reluctant matron:

"Yesterday she told me there was a good deal to be said for the German point of view, and asked me if I had any relations among the refugees because she heard quite a number of English people were taking them as maids."

Meanwhile there is of course a murder to be solved. One man is clearly a Bad Hat ('On one wall hung a framed photograph of the sort advertised in magazines as "artistic studio studies from the nude".'), but while he's obviously capable of blackmail and murder, is he actually guilty? There's the caterer to have in Society this season, who certainly had access to various compromising information, but did he use it? There's the victim's heir, who quarrelled with him; is he less of a young idiot than he appears? And the victim was a good friend of Alleyn's; he always tries to solve the case to the best of his ability, but here he's personally affected as well. There's perhaps a little much of the who-was-where for my taste, but it's all well-handled.

And on top of all that there's the return of Agatha Troy; she also moves in this part of Society, and is repeatedly thrown into Alleyn's company in various awkward ways. This progress is often understated, and never as convincing as that of Wimsey and Vane, but it has some good moments nonetheless.

I wouldn't recommend this to someone who isn't already fairly steeped in the conventions of this sort of mystery, but with that background I enjoyed it greatly. Followed by Overture to Death.

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See also:
The Fashion in Shrouds, Margery Allingham

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