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Black As He's Painted, Ngaio Marsh 17 December 2017

1973 classic English detective fiction; twenty-eighth of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The president of newly-independent Ng'ombwana is visiting London; many years ago he was at school with Roderick Alleyn, and now he insists on having Alleyn involved in his security. Especially when there's an assassination attempt at his party in the embassy.

All right, this is to some extent a Message Book, and the message is: racism is bad. Written now it would seem heavy-handed, because although the problems haven't gone away it's been done better since; written in 1973, when Enoch Powell was still a power in the land and it wasn't long since American cities had been burning in race riots, but many people in England had never actually met a black person at all, it was perhaps a bit fresher.

All right, as with A Clutch of Constables the "good" white characters are still somewhat patronising, but Marsh is groping effectively towards the idea that "not like us" is not necessarily the same thing as "wrong".

At least as far as the black people are concerned. For the white, it's open season, especially on the brother and sister who keep the Piggie Pottery, which is at least as twee as it sounds:

Age: approx. fifty-eight Height: five foot ten. Weight: sixteen stone four. Very obese. Blond. Long hair. Dress: eccentric, ultra-modern. Bracelets. Anklet. Necklace. Wears makeup. Probably homosexual. One ring through pierced lobe.

The sister, vast in green fringed satin, also wore her hair, which was purple, in a fringe and side-pieces. These in effect squared her enormous face.

But the other suspects don't come off much better:

In comparison with the Sanskrits they were, Mr. Whipplestone thought, really not so awful, or perhaps more accurately, they were awful in a more acceptable way.

Lots of people living near the embassy seem to have some connection to Ng'ombwana, and many of them are behaving distinctly oddly even before the ambassador, who'd been sitting near the visiting president when the lights went out, turns up with a spear through his back. Everyone regards it as faintly absurd that an embassy's foreignness should be respected, but they do it anyway.

This is a much more modern book than Marsh's previous outing, Tied Up in Tinsel: it helps that it's set in London, and it's visibly not the same London or the same world as the early books.

"Of course," Mr. Whipplestone said, at last, "these things don't happen in England. At receptions and so on. Madmen, at large in kitchens or wherever it was."

"Or at upstairs windows in warehouses?"

"Quite."

And Troy is here, not constantly in the foreground, but she wants to paint the president, and the president wants to be painted. Even when there are ongoing threats against his life.

"Wouldn't it be simpler," Fox ventured, "under the circumstances, I mean, to cancel the sittings?"

"Look here, Br'er Fox," Alleyn said. "I've done my bloody best to keep my job out of sight of my wife and by and large I've made a hash of it. But I'll tell you what: if ever my job looks like so much as coming between one dab of her brush and the surface of her canvas, I'll chuck it and set up a prep school for detectives."

After a considerable pause Mr. Fox said judicially: "She's lucky to have you."

"Not she," said Alleyn. "It's entirely the other way round."

And there's an utterly splendid moment, which adds little to the story but is simply fun, when a police observer is got up as a sketch artist, and Alleyn has to camouflage his conversation with him as people stroll past:

Seeing him settle there, the sergeant returned to Capricorn Mews, where, having an aptitude in that direction, he followed a well-worn routine by sitting on a canvas stool and making a pencil sketch of the pig-pottery. He had quite a collection of sketches at home, some finished and prettily tinted and aquarelles, others of a rudimentary kind, having been cut short by an arrest or by an obligation to shift the area of investigation. For these occasions he wore jeans, a dirty jacket, and an excellent wig of the Little Lord Fauntleroy type.

[...]

Alleyn said: "I wouldn't have the patience, myself. Don't put me in it," he added. These were the remarks by bystanders that Troy said were most frequently heard. "Is it for sale?" he asked.

"Er," said the disconcerted sergeant.

"I might come back and have another look," Alleyn remarked, and left the two youths to gape.

Oh, and there's a cat, who seems somewhat superfluous: she does reveal a vital clue, but it's a clue that had no need to exist in the first place (either for solving the mystery or for its diegetic purpose), and one feels Marsh put it in for her to find. It soon becomes clear that there are multiple villains, but the identity of the actual murderer is another matter, and there's a last-moment switch which felt somewhat like cheating… but even though my tolerance for such things is usually fairly low, this one worked for me.

This is definitely a counterexample to those who say that Marsh retreated to the 1930s in her later books, and while very different from the last one it's still extremely good. Followed by Last Ditch.

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