RogerBW's Blog

Off With His Head, Ngaio Marsh 31 July 2017

1957 classic English detective fiction; nineteenth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. In the village of South Mardian, the Dance of the Five Sons is still performed at midwinter; but this year one of the dancers will be decapitated in truth as well as in jest. US vt Death of a Fool.

This is a tricky book to review. On the one hand Marsh is technically on solid form, with a seemingly impossible murder cleanly resolved. But on the other she seems to have little patience with or liking for her characters; most of them are varying degrees of horrid and/or broken (including the village idiot for whom the "explanation" is that he's a petit mal epileptic), and the Young Lovers are more annoying than charming even to other characters.

"Darling, I'm terribly glad you said that."

"Are you? I'm so glad."

They gazed at each other with half smiles. Alleyn said: "To interrupt for a moment your mutual rejoicing—" and they both jumped slightly.

One that did work well for me was the German folklorist Mrs Bünz, who intrudes herself into what's been quietly happening at the village for centuries, with the aim of recording and publishing it all. I've met a couple of German women with this kind of shameless inquisitiveness, who will simply keep prying into what interests them in the face of all social cues and even when explicitly told to go away (at which point they look hurt, and carry on), and so I know this can be an accurate rendering. And then there's the ex bomber pilot…

"I feel damn' sorry for him. As long as he was in uniform with his ribbons up he was quite a person. That's how it was with those boys; wasn't it? They lived high, wide and dangerous and they were everybody's heroes. Then he was demobilized and came back here. You know what county people are like: it takes a flying bomb to put a dent in their class-consciousness, and then it's only temporary. They began to say how ghastly the RAF slang was and to ask each other if it didn't rock you a bit when you saw them out of uniform. It's quite true that Simon bounded sky high and used an incomprehensible and irritating jargon and that some of his waistcoats were positively terrifying. All the same."

There's endless questioning about exactly where everyone was at each moment of the dance, and it gets repetitive, because the challenge is to spot the inconsistency in the accounts; but that's also pretty tedious. The representation of dialect and accent gets quite heavy at times. Alleyn often explains his theories to other people without the reader being allowed to know what they are, which may be a necessary part of the puzzle but feels like a cheat.

It didn't help that I spotted the murderer at the point of introduction, and then only had to work out how it had been done. This is of course a traditional mystery in which everyone benefits from the death, so when Alleyn says

"I despise motive. [...] The case is lousy with motive. Everybody's got a sort of motive. We can't ignore it, of course, but it won't bring home the bacon, Brer Fox. Opportunity's the word, my boy. Opportunity."

what also matters is personality: yes, X benefits, but is X the sort of person who would plausibly kill in order to get that kind of benefit?

As a technical murder mystery this is fine, but the characters are a bit lacking, and I didn't enjoy this as much as I have most of Marsh. Followed by Singing in the Shrouds.

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