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Scales of Justice, Ngaio Marsh 17 July 2017

1955 classic English detective fiction; eighteenth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The quiet village of Swevenings has seen two deaths recently: Sir Harold Lacklander of the Foreign Service died of old age and heart failure, leaving his memoirs to his good friend and neighbour Colonel Cartarette to edit and publish. But now someone's stove the Colonel's head in.

After the foreign misstep of Spinsters in Jeopardy, this is a much more conventional country-house murder story. It's clear in the first chapter that there is something discreditable in Sir Harold's memoir, something that'll reflect poorly even on his son and grandson. And the grandson, a doctor, is wooing the Colonel's daughter, which adds extra complication. And then there are the neighbours along the road between the two houses, the toxophilite alcoholic and the rather strange cat-fancier. And the district nurse, who calls things as she sees them (and discovers the body). And of course there's the Colonel's second wife… and here things start to deviate from the script. Kitty Cartarette is the thing that's obviously out of place in this rural setting.

Lady Lacklander in the course of a long life spent in many embassies had encountered every kind of eccentricity in female attire and was pretty well informed as to the predatory tactics of women whom, in the Far East, she had been wont to describe as "light cruisers."

She has a Past, and she seems to be getting involved with George Cartarette even before her husband is killed. So much, so stock character.

She told him repeatedly how chivalrous he was and so cast a glow of knight-errantry over impulses that are not usually seen in that light. She allowed him only the most meagre rewards, doling out the lesser stimulants of courtship in positively homeopathic doses.

But she has a streak of realism, and that's where she breaks out of the mould.

She looked up at Rose. "O.K., Rose," she said. "Not to fuss. I'll make out. I wasn't expecting anything. My sort," she added obscurely, "don't."

Everyone assumes she's a Bad Person because of the sort of life she's led; but that doesn't necessarily make her a Bad Person in other respects, and being willing to give house-room to this idea shows a remarkably liberal attitude in a writer who (like most authors of mysteries, I suspect) mostly tends to the conventional and conservative.

Of course, the Colonel is done in, and a huge and famous trout – the "Old 'Un" that all the locals have been trying to catch for years – left next to his body. (The temptation to say whether this is a red herring is almost irresistible, and Marsh does not quite resist it.) Alleyn is called in, bringing with him Fox and Bailey, and has to go through the usual routine, including liaising with the local force.

"Did you form any opinion at all, Oliphant?" Alleyn asked. This is the most tactful remark a C.I.D. man can make to a county officer, and Oliphant coruscated under its influence.

The setting feels dated; there are some references to Nazis, and some of the characters were in Singapore before the War, but it would take only very minor surgery to set this in the 1920s or 1930s, where it would all seem rather more plausible. I don't find that a bad thing, because I'm reading all these books as historical documents anyway, but I can see that contemporary readers might have been disconcerted.

The conclusion, involving the identity of the murderer, was gravely disappointing to me; it's reasonably consistent and so on, but it seemed like a drearily conventional answer, with the interests of justice most definitely not served.

In spite of all this the book mostly works. Followed by Off With His Head.

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