RogerBW's Blog

Death and the Dancing Footman, Ngaio Marsh 08 January 2017

1941 (some sources say 1942) classic English detective fiction; eleventh of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. For his own amusement, Jonathan Royal invites six mortal enemies to a party at his house in Dorset. Really, the first surprise is that he isn't murdered.

One of the standard tricks Marsh uses to make everyone in the story a plausible suspect is to make everyone at least faintly repellent. Here she achieves that by having them introduced by Royal, talking to the playwright friend who is the audience for his production, in the least favourable terms possible.

"She is a Miss Chloris Wynne. One of the white-haired kind."

"A platinum blonde?"

"The colour of a light Chablis, and done up in plaster-like sausages. She resembles the chorus of my youth. I'm told that nowadays the chorus looks like the county. I find her appearance startling and her conversation difficult, but I have watched her with interest and I have formed the opinion that she is a very neat example of the woman scorned."

One might indeed wonder why we care about any of these people: but some of them are definitely more done-unto than doing, and others are distinctly more horrible even than Royal claims.

Her manner conveyed, as an Englishwoman's manner seldom conveys, a sort of woman-to-man awareness that was touched with camaraderie. With every look she gave him, — and her glances were circumspect, — she flattered Jonathan, and, although he still made uncomfortable little noises in his throat and fidgeted with his glasses, he began to look sleek; into his own manner there crept an air of calculation…

However, Marsh does rather indulge herself in observing these people and poking them with a stick; nobody is murdered until nearly half-way through, and Alleyn doesn't arrive on the scene until only about a quarter of the book is left. By that point we've had enough clues from things that he couldn't possibly observe, such as the thoughts of various people as they went to sleep the previous night, not to mention such blatant swipes of the authorial broad brush as "Next, she moved to the bedside table and for some minutes her hands were busy there", that we may be inclined to agree with Alleyn that "The thing's so blasted obvious I keep wondering if there's a catch in it" even if we have arrived at our conclusions by a thoroughly parallel construction. For my taste there's not quite enough detection in this detective story. Even the obligatory romance goes somewhat askew, though it's helped by the depiction of the man's feelings as he gradually comes to realise his situation.

[He] wondered testily how a young woman who did not try the eyes, and was by no means a ninny, could possibly degrade her intelligence by falling for the brummagem charms of Nicholas Compline. "A popinjay," he muttered, "a stock figure of dubious gallantry." And he pronounced the noise usually associated with the word "Pshaw."

This is very much a novel of the phoney war, set (and presumably written) in the winter of 1939 before the fall of France; a reference to "those now almost forgotten days" tries to paper over the inevitable delays between writing and publication. The men are mostly in the Army (and one of them briefly went to "the front", presumably with the BEF in France); people hang on the news, which has nothing to say; however bad things get, it's bound to be worse when the air raids start; and Alleyn reflects on the oddity of taking great pains to ensure that a specific person is hanged when soon enough people will be dying by the thousand.

"Miss Chloris, I should explain, is a W.R.E.N., not yet called up, but filling the interim with an endless succession of indomitable socks. My distant cousin Hersey is also a vigorous knitter. I feel sure poor Sandra is hard at work on some repellent comfort."

More seriously, though, two of the characters are refugees from mainland Europe, and while Alleyn regards as tragic "a deep-seated terror of plainclothes police officers", one of them at least can tell the difference even when he's accused:

"I am an Austrian refugee and a Jew, who has become a naturalized Briton. I have developed what I believe you would call a good nose for justice. Austrian justice, Nazi justice, and English justice. I have learned when to be terrified and when not to be terrified."

Although the snow-storm that cuts off the house is awfully convenient as a way to stop people leaving, Marsh is clearly aware by now of at least some of her shortcomings and foibles:

"I hate the semipublic reconstruction stunt--it's theatrical and it upsets all sorts of harmless people. Still, it has its uses. We've known it to come off, haven't we?"

It's formulaic at times, but I suspect that in the early days of the war a bit of business as usual may have been just what people wanted. Followed by Colour Scheme.

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