RogerBW's Blog

Colour Scheme, Ngaio Marsh 17 January 2017

1943 classic English detective fiction; twelfth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. At a run-down hot-springs resort in the back country of New Zealand, one guest seems to be going out of his way to offend everyone; then he vanishes.

As in Death and the Dancing Footman, everyone here is more or less repellent. The Claires are a more middle-class version of the hopeless Lampreys from A Surfeit of Lampreys; the "natives" who live on the other side of the hot springs are all either drunkards or noble; the famous actor who's a guest is horrid in his own way; and Maurice Questing, the victim (or is he?), is entirely without redeeming features. Very much as in Footman (and even back in A Man Lay Dead, now that I think about it), I kept expecting the love-story to be subverted in some way.

"War news a bit brighter this morning, sir," said the porter tentatively.

"The sooner we're all dead, the better," Dr. Ackrington replied cheerfully. He gave a falsetto barking noise, and limped quickly down the steps.

"Was that a joke?" said the hall porter to the servant. The servant turned up his eyes.

But this is also a book where, once more, Alleyn doesn't show up until a fair way through the book, and more seriously operates without his usual supporting characters. With nobody for him to talk to, it's much less fun than when he's being a normal policeman in England. That's the weak side, and it's a shame, when there's also so much good stuff here: digressions on Shakespeare, a classic "a-ha" trap that reveals something other than what the trapper thinks it does, and multiple desires of multiple people culminating in death.

The key point on which the whole thing turns is meant to be a surprise, but seemed both rather obvious and frankly implausible. But I won't say more, because to reveal it early cuts the heart out of the book… and to notice it early is to be frustrated when the characters apparently don't.

There's definitely war going on here, though without any details; ships are being sunk, and Questing is suspected of being an enemy agent. But even this fairly short book feels a bit stretched thin over a frame that's too large for it.

Followed by Died in the Wool.

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