Sunday, March 17, 2019

Swan Song: Light Thickens (1982), by Ngaio Marsh, a sequel of sorts to Death at the Dolphin (1966)

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood


--Macbeth, William Shakespeare

Last books by long-lived, prolific mystery writers sometimes can be lamentable performances, like that of an actor of declining powers who vainly deigns to remain strutting upon the stage.  Even their warmest admirers often do not have much to say that is laudatory about Agatha Christie's Postern of Fate (1973) or John Dickson Carr's The Hungry Goblin (1972), both of them written near the end of the author's lives.

Sometimes this failure of powers may be due to disabilities associated with old age. Christie, who was 82 and 83 respectively when her last novels Elephants Can Remember and Postern of Fate was published, was suffering from dementia when she was writing them, according to a researcher, who says of Christie's writing at that time that her use of vocabulary had "completely tanked."  Or sometimes a writer simply may be written out.  Carr was only 65 (a time when many authors remain at their prime) when The Hungry Goblin was published, yet even his admiring biographer Douglas G. Greene considers it too poor a work to merit reprinting.  Yet Carr's work had been declining for some time, arguably for as long as two decades.  The could be said, too, of Christie, or a number of other Golden Age writers.

For many Golden Age writers, the 1950s, when most of them were entering their sixties or seventies after two or three decades (or more) writing, signaled a beginning of a decline in their work, which accelerated in the 1960s.  This doesn't mean they couldn't still produce good books--Christie's 4:50 from Paddington, Cat among the Pigeons and The Pale Horse, written when Christie was around 70, are all well-regarded by fans--yet there often was an overall decline.  In the Thirties, noted Robert Barnard of Christie, for example, one expected masterpiece after masterpiece from the author's pen, while after around 1950 or so one could only hope.

What about New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, who after the death of Dorothy L. Sayers in 1957 and Margery Allingham in 1966, remained, in the eyes of critics and many fans, the main rival to Christie's crown as Queen of Crime until Christie's own death in 1976? 

I think that Marsh, who was five years younger than Christie (and claimed to be nine years younger), produced several books in the Fifties that were comparable with her best work.  However, by the 1960s Marsh's work too was slipping, in my view.  I like the comedy of manners in Hand in Glove (1961) and the original situation in Clutch of Constables (1968)--not to mention the clever alliterative title with its double meaning--as well as the timeliness of Black as He's Painted (1974) and the classic country house set-up in the New Zealnd setting of Photo-Finish (1980), but I'm pretty lukewarm, on the whole, about the rest of her output from her later years.

Often Marsh's Death at the Dolphin (1966) draws high praise, however.  Indeed, in its day influential American reviewer Anthony Boucher raved the novel, placing it on his ten best of the year list, which he had done since 1949 and continued until 1967.  (He died in 1968). 

Over those 18 years, during which Marsh published a total of ten detective novels, Boucher included just two other Marsh mysteries, Opening Night (1951) and Scales of Justice (1955), in his annual top ten lists, giving Marsh the same number of mentions, incidentally, as late Fifties newcomer Patricia Moyes.   So presumably Boucher thought that Marsh's Killer Dolphin, or Death in the Dolphin as it was re-titled in the US, was one of Marsh's very best mysteries. 

Golden Age stalwart Christie, in case you're wondering, made Boucher's lists 9 times (out of 20 novels and 1 short story collection), which is pretty terrific for an author in relative decline as I have contended, though Ross Macdonald edged her with 11 (!) mentions (out of 13 novels and 1 short story collection).  

I agree with Boucher that Opening Night and Scales of Justice are two of Marsh's best mysteries, but, despite the admiration Boucher and other later readers held for it (Crime writer and Sunday Times mystery reviewer Edmund Crispin was another admirer), I simply cannot work up enthusiasm for Death at the Dolphin.  It's one of Marsh's theater mysteries, which the author, who directed stage plays when she wasn't writing mysteries, periodically produced.   In her own home country of New Zealand, we are told, it was her theatrical work which won her the most critical respect.

It seems that the Bard was
the main man in Ngaio Marsh's life
The first chapter of "Killer Dolphin," in which young theatrical director, Peregrine "Perry" Jay (why not Poppin "Poppy" Jay if we're going to be twee?) tours a derelict, bomb-damaged  theater, the Dolphin, and falls under its decrepit yet still potent charm, is appealing. 

On stage Jay falls into a hole filled with slimy cold water, but is rescued by reclusive millionaire Vassily Conducis, who owns the theater and is yet another character from the era modeled on Green tycoon Aristotle Onassis (though Mr. Conducis is part Russian).  He offers to restore the Dolphin and put Jay in charge of producing plays there.  He also shows Jay a glove he owns which supposedly belonged to Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, who died when he was but 11. 

Jay decides that for The Dolphin he will write a play, "The Glove," based on events in Shakespeare's life (with plenty of fictional invention). And why not?  The whole book reads like a fantasy wish fulfillment novel for theatrical directors who are also, like Ngaio Marsh, Shakespeare fiends.  They should love this book, to be sure.  Did I mention Jay finds his beloved future wife in the novel as well?  Of course he does.  And the at the play is a big hit?  Of course it is.

Years later, in Marsh's detective novel Light Thickens, a sequel of sorts to Death at the Dolphin, Perry's wife Emily tells a young boy, now acting at the Dolphin, the story of "how Peregrine, a struggling young author-director, came into the wrecked Dolphin and fell into the bomb hole on the stage and was rescued from it and got the job of restoring the theatre and was made a member of the board."

"Even now, it's a bit fairy-like," she reflects.  And indeed it is.  Killer Dolphin is a fairy tale.

"the master-mistress of my passion"
portrait of the young Earl of Southampton
Was the Earl Shakespeare's "W.H."?
There is, to be sure, one of Ngaio's narsty murders, about 150 pages into this 300 page novel.  The problem for murder fanciers is that it's a very routine murder.  There's also a theft (of the fabled glove), but this is routine as well, outside of the fact that a Shakespearean relic is involved.  The only interesting mystery that actually appears in the novel, I think, is the question of Mr. Conducis' motivations, but even this was slim compensation. 

And please recall that in my last blog post, a review of Marsh's Swing, Brother, Swing, I defended Marsh against criticism that she couldn't plot worth a damn, so I don't feel I'm biased against the author in this respect.  It's simply that I believe what Jacques Barzun has written about Dolphin is true: "the mystery is forced and the outcome dull."

Are there any compensations?  Not for me, really.  I didn't find the characters sufficiently interesting or memorable, nor did Jay's play "The Glove" fascinate me.  Indeed, I couldn't see why it would have been so popular. 

Jay brings into the play the ambiguous "W.H" from the sonnets, along with the Dark Lady, but I thought the whole thing tamely handled.  As usual, Ngaio only mentions homosexuality to make dismissive references about it: Jay and his male friend and roommate Jeremy are most emphatically not gay and in fact spend a number of pages worrying that the whole setup with Mr. Conducis might be some elaborate effort on the magnate's part to bed Jay.  But then we learn that Mr. Conducis is not gay either, so the poor boys were needlessly panicked at the thought of the big bad gay wolf. 

They should have known better, however, for the only people in Ngaio's books who actually ever are portrayed as queer are, as I recall, one lone, suicidal lesbian, in Singing in the Shrouds (1958), and a flock of extremely broadly drawn "flaming queen" stereotypes scattered throughout the author's lengthy crime corpus. 

Lytton Strachey
"Homosexuals seem to live in such a state of hectic misery & to get so little fun out of whatever antics they employ...one wonders they don't give it up as a bad job," Ngaio commented dismissively in a 1978 letter after reading  biography of Lytton Strachey, who died way back in 1932, nearly a half century earlier (and only two years before Marsh published her first mystery).  Which attitude helps explain, I think, her portrayals of LGBTQ people in her books.

As a group gay men in particular just did not interest her, except as stereotyped comic relief, and her one lesbian is simply pathetic and sad, a backward step even from The Well of Loneliness (1928).  It's as if Marsh's views of homosexuality had set in stone around 1930 and she never saw a need to update them.  Marsh's second biographer tries to make the case that Marsh herself was a lesbian, but I've always had trouble accepting this view, given Marsh's writing on the subject.  If she was a lesbian, she must have been deeply closeted, both physically and mentally.

So concerning Death in the Dolphin aka Killer Dolphin I'm afraid that I have to part company with Anthony Boucher, seeing it as I do as a novel with very little to commend it after the first chapter (which I agree is very well written).  Perhaps Ngaio was really a mainstream novelist trying to break out of the mystery "ghetto," if you will, but in Dolphin, as I see it, she regrettably has nothing of interest to say and the mystery element, like the killer whale, blows. 

At best, it seems to me, it's simply a trifling amiable fantasy about nice people putting on a nice show at a nice theater, with a discordantly not-nice murder perfunctorily thrown in so that it can be called a mystery.  Given that I've just admittedly described a lot of modern mysteries, this may actually be the sort of thing a lot of modern mystery readers enjoy.  And certainly there is no crime in that.  We all have different preferences about what sort of fictional worlds we like to escape into, but I like one with a little more spikiness, whether in the puzzle or the milieu (or both).

However, Marsh gamely returned to the Dolphin theater to stage another murder in her final detective novel, Light Thickens, which she wrote at the age of 86, heroically completing it just a few weeks before her death in 1982; and I like the results better.  It is definitely more to my taste.

Although modern critical wisdom about Light Thickens is that it is a weak effort, in my view it is at least an improvement on its predecessor Death at the Dolphin.  Peregrine Jay returns in a major role, now married to Emily and with three boys.  There are a couple of other characters from the Dolphin milieu who return as well.  The play is still the thing, and with all due respect to Ngaio it's a rather better one than The Glove that they're putting on this time: Shakespeare's own Macbeth.

Light Thickens is, I think, unquestionably more thinly, even choppily, written than earlier Marshes, with much of the witty and rich language which characterized her previous novels sadly gone missing.  The decline in the writing quality between this one and even her immediately previous novel, Photo Finish, is evident:

The rest of the evening was unreal.  The visit to the royal box and the royal visit to the cast.  The standing ovation at the end.  Everything to excess.  A multiple Cinderella story.  Sort of. 

This is way off from the usual Marsh standard, though the customary Ngaio wit does glint at points.  "Old Nina's got the bug very badly," Jay says of a superstitious actress in Macbeth fearful of all the dark legends which have built up around the play. "Her dressing-table's like a second-hand charm shop.

There is also a funny little bit when Emily, who is trying to invent an imaginary malady for her husband to assume (read the book), suggests diverticulitis.  Why that one, Jay asks, to which Emily responds:

"I don't know why...but it seems to me it's something American husbands have.  Their wives say mysteriously to one: 'My dear!  He has diverticulitis!  And one nods and looks solemn."

There's an additional amusing twist to this joke, but I'll leave you to read it for yourself.  Of course if you're suffering from diverticulitis, whatever it is exactly, you may not find this passage so mirthful.

What gives considerable boost to Light Thickens in my estimation is its overall conception, which is a grand one.  Marsh had long had the idea for this novel in mind, but only in her final months did she finally attempt to set it to paper. 

Of course murders have taken place during plays before in detective novels (Marsh herself had done one nearly a half century earlier), but Light Thickens fully integrates the murder story with the performance of the play itself, and what a play it is for a murder: "The Scottish Play," Macbeth, superstitiously believed to be cursed, like the Hope Diamond.  It's known as "The Scottish Play," in fact, because it's considered bad luck during a production even actually to speak the title of the play out loud.  It is, verily, the play that dare not speak its name.

Apropos of which, see this old Blackadder sketch:


During the production of the play, pranks are played on the cast members, non of them deadly but all of them nasty and grotesque.  Could there be some sinister purpose behind this seemingly senseless japery? 

The main cast members of the play are characterized economically but sufficiently to advance the mystery along.  There are, first and foremost, Dougal Macdougal, a real Scotsman, in the title role and Simon Morten as his nemesis Macduff, both of whom are enamored with the leading lady, Margaret Mannering, who plays Lady Macbeth. 

Then there is Bruce Barrabell, an actor's equity union representative and all round leftist malcontent (Ngaio's pronounced distaste for Communists has never been clearer than in this, her final novel), who plays Banquo; superstitious Nina Gaythorne as Lady Macduff; Rangi, one of the three Weird Sisters, a Maori actor from New Zealand ("My great-grandfather was a cannibal"), who has his own watches and wards against the supernatural; well-bred, aspiring nine-year-old actor William Smith, as Macduff's son; and arms enthusiast Gaston Sears, as Seyton, attendant to Macbeth.  (He also choreographed the final passage of arms between Macbeth and Macduff.) 

There's even a "stage" Cockney Props, Ernie, who says things like "fink" for "think," so that you will know he is a Cockney.  Marsh's Cockneys had been speaking like that for nearly a half-century; I suppose Ngaio figured, why stop now?  At least she doesn't have a plumber saying "Arr," like she does in Swing, Brother, Swing.

gone a little loopy
Michael Fassbender playint the title role in Macbeth (2015)

Jay heroically tries to hold things together, with the help of his wife and sons, but will the play, which promises to be one of the great Macbeths, actually see its opening night?  Of course murder--a horrible, bloody mess of a murder--will take its turn on the stage as well, pretty late into the novel.  The murder is most apt, so apt, indeed, that most people probably will discern the identity of the murderer about as easily Superintendent Alleyn does. There are some clues, but they only point to what should be, I imagine, already sufficiently clear to most readers.  Mystery fiction bloggers who are great devotees of puzzles like TomCat, for example, doubtlessly won't be impressed with the formal puzzle apparatus here.

However, even if I am right in that supposition, I don't see this novel as a failed effort.  The solution is a most fitting one artistically.  I agree to a great extent with Jacques Barzun, who wrote of the novel that the "denouement is predictable, but so brilliantly reached that the fault is overlooked."

It helps if you like Shakespeare, it should go without saying, and know about Macbeth.  Fortunately for me, it was my favorite in school of Shakespeare's major tragedies, for I found King Lear too depressing, Othello too vexing and Hamlet too enervating.  It's also the only one of the bunch I've ever personally seen on performed stage, at the Alabama Shakespeare festival.  (Yes, there is one, near Montgomery, Alabama, and quite nice it is too.)


Perhaps Ngaio might have given us a flawless crime novel had she made Light Thickens an actual crime novel, jettisoning the weak puzzle elements.  As it is, it bears resemblance to a remarkable film about Shakespeare and murder which won an acting Oscar for a veteran British thespian in the 1940s.  (And I'm not taking about Olivier.)  But instead Marsh cast it as her usual detective novel, and as such it makes a charming adieu to her fans and to the Golden Age of mystery.  Of novels written by actual between-the-wars members of the Detection Club, only four by seemingly indefatigable fiction factory Gladys Mitchell, who died in 1983, would follow Light Thickens into publication; three of them were posthumously published, like Ngaio's last Light.

Ngaio Marsh knew that her health was failing when she was writing Light Thickens.  I'm sure she must have suspected it would be her last novel.  With a great effort she made her final public appearance in September 1981, when she appeared at the dedication ceremony of the newly restored Theatre Royal in Christchurch, New Zealand (restored again after the 2011 earthquake, not the last of the city's calamities as we saw this week).  Marsh cut the ribbon across the theater's portal and resoundingly declared, "God bless this ship and all who sail in her."

Housebound thereafter, her own ship taking sail no more, Marsh completed her manuscript and sent it out on January 7, 1982.  Her agents had reservations about the novel, but Little, Brown, her longtime American publisher, accepted it immediately, which Marsh was much pleased to hear two weeks before her death on February 18.  She never did learn that Collins had accepted her final novel.  Collins in fact had contemplated rejecting it and insisted on substantial editing after Marsh's death.  Something they should have done for Christie's last two novels!

Despite publisher concerns, Light Thickens was much praised by critics and lapped up by fans.  Seemingly nothing becomes authors, in the eyes of critics and fans alike, like their recent death.  But today, 37 years after Ngaio Marsh's demise, I think that Light Thickens is still well worth reading.  Perhaps had she written the novel earlier in her life, it might have been one of her masterpieces, but as it stands it makes an affecting swan song from one of the major figures in the mystery genre.

Other reviews of Death at the Dolphin aka Killer Dolphin:
The Puzzle Doctor (This is dull.  Deathly dull.  By the end of the book I just didn't give a flying monkey's whodunit.)
Lucy Fisher (the characters....are so well-drawn--it's a joy to spend time with them, and the banter is really witty....I love the atmosphere....That's how I remember [London].)
Kate Jackson (the end of the book fell flat for me, which is a pity as the beginning of the story is strong and Marsh is expert at recreating the world of the theatre.)
Nick Hay (The actual crime, investigation and solution are all fairly routine, with the question of the theft of the glove itself being rather tedious.)

Theatre Royal, Christchurch

Monday, March 11, 2019

"Die" in Amber: Swing, Brother, Swing (1949), Ngaio Marsh

Here lies Lord Berners
One of the learners
His great love of learning
May earn him a burning
But, Praise the Lord!
He seldom was bored.

--epitaph (self-composed) of Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners (1883-1950)

"I've taken it up seriously, Lord Pastern continued.  "Swing.  Boogie-woogie.  Jive."

--Lord Pastern and Bagott in Swing, Brother, Swing (1949), by Ngaio Marsh

Lord Berners in his thirties
Perhaps dotty aristocrats were a dime-and-dozen, if you will, in England (inherited money and titled privilege can produce some strange results), but when it came to eccentricity surely English bon vivant Lord Berners was a pearl among potty princes. 

Lord Berners was a dilettante artist, composer and author, a flamboyant aesthete, a practical jokester and cheeky homosexual.  In 1932 he privately published The Girls of Radcliff Hall (a play on the name of the groundbreaking lesbian author), which naughtily portrayed himself and some of his famous friends, including Cecil Beaton and Oliver Messel, as lesbian schoolgirls.  (Cecil Beaton was so appalled by this he tried to buy and destroy every copy of the book.) 

The same year Lord Berners took up residence with his well-born 28-years-younger lover, the so-called "Mad Boy" Robert Vernon Heber-Percy, at Faringdon House, a family home where the couple for the next eighteen years held court for prominent aristocrats and artists, including Nancy and Diana Mitford, Sir John and Lady Penelope Betjeman, Siegfried Sassoon, Harold Acton, Gertrude Stein, Elsa Schiaparelli, Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dali and H. G. Wells.  Quite a coterie!

Oddball Lord Berners, upon whom Nancy Mitford based the character of Lord Merlin in her lauded 1945 novel The Pursuit of Love, was known for idiosyncratic behavior, like dyeing his pigeons' feathers in pretty pastels, decking his dogs in pearl necklaces, having Penelope Betjeman's pale horse over to Faringdon House for tea and, as a 1935 birthday tribute to his handsome and virile 24-year-old partner, symbolically constructing a tower, Faringdon Folly, upon which a sign was placed, reading: "Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk."

the menage at Faringdon House
Lord Berners, Rupert (holding baby) and Jennifer

During the Forties the Mad Boy, who evidently was bisexual, would unpredictably marry a woman of genteel birth, with whom he fathered a daughter.  The family lived together at Faringdon House for a few short years during the war (when they were photographed in a family group scene by Cecil Beaton), before the wife, Jennifer, decided she couldn't stick it any more and left with her child to go home to her parents at Oare House.

Reading Ngaio Marsh's postwar detective novel Swing, Brother, Swing (in the US A Wreath for Rivera), which is about an eccentric 55-year-old English aristocrat. George Settinger, Marquis of Pastern and Bagott, I couldn't help thinking how much more interesting the novel would have been had it been directly about the Berners menage.  Marsh's Lord Pastern (I'm going to drop the rest of the handle) seems disappointingly mild by comparison.  But then most people would.

Lord Berners in middle age
Was Lord Berners in fact any sort of inspiration for Lord Pastern?  Here is how Marsh first describes him:

He was short, not more than five foot seven, but so compactly built that he did not give the impression of low stature.  Everything about him was dapper, though not obtrusively so; his clothes, the flower in his coat, his well-brushed hair and moustache.  

Here's a description of Lord Berners, from Sofka Zinovieff's book The Mad Boy:

He was short and solidly built, his hair only barely there, and he sported a well-clipped moustache over a sensualist's lips.  

Harold Acton described Lord Berners as bubbling over "with private jokes and farcical inventions" and "constantly changing his skin, as it were, reveling in mystification.

This all seems to fit Marsh's Lord Pastern to a T. 

I'm betting they ate like horses at tea--
or one of them did, anyway
Where Lord Berners had genuine artistic ability himself and genuinely promoted art amid his toffish silliness, however, Marsh has Lord Pastern uselessly diffusing his undoubted energies in footling (to use a favored word of the author's) activities which Marsh clearly means her readers to mock. His starchy aristocratic French wife--with whom he had been estranged though they have since (improbably) reconciled--complains bitterly in a letter to Carlisle Wayne, her husband's niece, that after the war she had been forced to share their London townhouse, Duke's Gate, with

"members of an esoteric Central European sect" whose "dogma appeared to prohibit the use of soap and water" and whom in person "resembled the minor and dirtier prophets."  (Oh, those silly, dirty Central Europeans!) 

And her husband's strange enthusiasms--as doubtlessly Marsh and most of her readers saw them-- did not end there:

I found myself confronted in turn by Salvation Army Citadels, by retreats for Indian yogis, by apartments devoted to the study of Voodoo, by a hundred and one ephemeral and ludicrous obsessions.  Your uncle has turned with appalling virtuosity from the tenets of the Christadelphians to the practice of nudism.

Truly, Ngaio Marsh never went in for religious enthusiasm in her books.  (Recall Death in Ecstasy, Spinster in Jeopardy, Last Ditch).  Though again, I couldn't quite divine why Lady Pastern returned to live with a man she clearly can't abide.  However, for the purposes of the novel we have to accept this and move on from there.  So, let's go!

Lord Berners and Gertrude Stein
Also living at Duke's Gate are Lady Pastern's daughter from a prior marriage, Felicite De Suze, who is twenty years old and at the moment madly infatuated with an Argentine piano-accordionist in a dance band, Carlos De Rivera, much to her mother's horror. 

I couldn't help wondering whether Marsh got the inspiration for the "De Suze" surname from Henriette de Coligny de la Suze, a celebrated 17th century French poet from one of the country's most prominent Protestant families.  (Her father Gaspard III de Coligny was a Marshall of France and her great-grandfather Gaspard II a major Huguenot leader who was assassinated in the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

"Suze" reminds me of the Portuguese surname Souza or Sousa, and I thought maybe this was Ngaio's way of suggesting the family has some remote Portuguese background.  I'm sure Lady Pastern would want this hushed up, given her attitude about Carlos Rivera (I think the "De" he uses is bogus.)  She can't even be bothered to get his nationality right, referring to him as a "Mexican bandsman" in the presence of Carlisle (or "Lisle" as everyone calls her).  Ugh, that woman.

Gaspard III de Coligny
On the other hand, "Suze" is a French brand of bitters drunk as an aperitif (did Poirot ever drink it, I'm sure John Curran would know) and Sousa is a river in northern Portugal, so maybe they have absolutely nothing to do with each other!  Sometimes a Suze is a Suze  is a Suze, I'm sure.

To take care of these three people, Lord and Lady Pastern and Felicite ("Fee"), there are the servants: butler Mr. Spence, Housekeeper Miss Parker, French maid Hortense, chef Monsieur Dupont, a footman named William (such a popular name for footmen) and two girls, Mary and Mrytle, house maids of some sort, and a bit on the giggly and goggly side. 

They are very Thirties servants, docile and faintly comical, though Alleyn is able to get William, who "with any luck read detective magazines and spent his day-dream sleuthing," to open up a bit during his murder investigation. 

In terms of its social milieu and attitudes, this could be Marsh's Death and the Dancing Footman or Surfeit of Lampreys, published at the start of the Second World War (and set before it), or even Marsh's first detective novel, A Man Lay Dead, published fifteen years earlier (though I think this is the first time Alleyn had deigned to interview servants, because he so intimidates them, don't you know; they much prefer homey chats with homely Inspector Fox in the cozy confines of basement kitchens).

You would almost never guess from Swing, Brother, Swing that the UK was still recovering from a calamitous world war, its second in less than a quarter century.  I think in the novel there were three passing references made by the author to "the food shortage" and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it line about bombing damage in London.  I recently finished writing introductions to some Christopher Bush mystery reissues from the years 1946-52 and the contrast in the portrayal of social conditions  in England is striking indeed.  But then Bush lived through the war and its aftermath in England, even playing an active role in it; for him England wasn't just a romantic and fun place to gather writing material.  Marsh's book could easily have been given a prewar setting.

In short Swing, Brother, Swing is rather like a fly in amber--or as a murder mystery a "die" in amber, if you will allow that punning conceit.

a rough show
Unlike most authors of of British detective fiction during the Second World War
Ngaio Marsh had missed out on this sort of thing.

Marsh's two biographers have been harshly dismissive of Swing, Brother, Swing.  Noting that, when Marsh wrote the novel in New Zealand in 1948, she had not been back to England since 1937 (!) and was thus drawing on distant prewar memories of London, Margaret Lewis pronounces:

The plot [of the novel] is weak and trivial, the setting inappropriate, and in comparison to the originality of the New Zealand-based novels, Swing, Brother, Swing, appears a retrograde step....all the characters seem extraordinarily out of touch with the real world. 

As a fairly lightweight society crime story set in the 1930s it would have been acceptable, but set in the grey and dreary London of the Second World War, the plot seems ridiculous and the atmosphere of snobbery and privilege insensitive.  A trip to England was long overdue if [Ngaio] was to continue to set plots there with any kind of conviction.


Similarly, Joanne Drayton complains:

Swing, Brother, Swing was a formulaic book.  Ngaio fell back on what she knew to produce something that bordered on hackneyed....she peopled [it] with tired old aristocratic characters....

Pastern is an anachronistic comic cliche straight out of Ngaio's property box of 1930s stock characters. Before the war there had been nostalgia value and shared humour in this aristocratic type, but the cosy familiarity had disappeared somewhere in the grey daily grind of casualty lists.  There is no place in post-war Britain for Pastern's hedonism....Ngaio was out of date and out of touch....


This is strong criticism, and typical of biographers of Golden Age mystery writers, who often have no interest in mystery plots per se and never seem to ask the question, is it a good whodunit (or howdunit)

Rather they want to look for deeper meanings in the text, as if the GA mystery writers--the good ones, don't you know--were trying to write "Great Literature."  Sorry to tell people, but most all the time they weren't.  And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Writing a well-plotted and even well-written mystery is the most we should ask from a mystery writer, in my opinion.  Their work doesn't need to "transcend the genre" and become "Great Literature."

the American first edition
I agree that Ngaio Marsh was dreadfully out-of-date in Swing, Brother, Swing and that a trip to England, which she finally set out on in 1949, the year of the publication of Swing, was badly indicated--though in fact Lord Pastern, if he was partly based on Lord Berners, was not one of the out-of-date elements, as Lord Berners was alive and kicking all through the Forties.  Lord Pastern, I would say, is, while admittedly outlandish, a perfectly valid character.

By and large contemporary reviewers in the UK and US do not seem to have found fault with Swing, as her biographers did many decades later. Indeed, much to the contrary, the book was highly praised by critics.

Influential American crime fiction reviewer and earnest liberal Anthony Boucher raved Marsh's latest  (with one qualification) in his contemporary review:

John Strachey once rightly described the Nineteen Thirties as the golden age of English detection--a period in which the comedy of manners and the strict puzzle successfully fused to produce a new and suavely literate form of entertainment.  Of those who made made the age golden, some, such as Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy Sayers, have retired from the field and others have fallen off in their work.  But we are still blessed, if far too infrequently, with golden age specimens from a few such writers such as Nicholas Blake, Michael Innes and Ngaio Marsh.  [Note the omissions of Agatha Christie and, more surprisingly, Margery Allingham, who was one of the authors praised originally by Strachey.--TPT]

The latest Marsh stars, of course, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn and presents him with the murder of a hot piano accordionist in which several standard gambits and gimmicks are so neatly interwoven with red herrings ("red whales," Allen eventually calls them) that the most habituated reader is lulled into overlooking their obviousness.

This problem is played against a background of London high society, viewed a trifle more critically than has been Miss Marsh's wont.  Even an old square like me might object that her handling of jazz musicians is not nearly so knowledgeable as her earlier treatments of painters and actors.  But this is a slight flaw in a succulent novel.

early Sixties reprint of the classic
British first edition
Boucher's contemporary, the late long-lived puzzle purist Jacques Barzun (1907-2012), who often found himself at odds with Boucher, agreed with him concerning Marsh's Swing, selecting it as one of his and his colleague Wendell Hertig Taylor's 100 Classics of Crime Fiction.  This suggests he found it the most pleasing overall example of detection in Marsh's 32 novel crime fiction oeuvre.

However, another traditionalist who often agreed with Barzun, Edmund Crispin, rendered a dissenting opinion.  In January 1966, a morose time in the alcoholic author's life when he was supposed to be writing a mystery after a long divorce from authorship but was getting nowhere, Crispin wrote dispiritedly in a journal that he was reading a mystery by Ngaio Marsh. 

A once active and accomplished music composer himself, Crispin was not impressed with Swing, Brother Swing.  It seems he agreed with Boucher about the novel's shaky grasp on jazz musicians, but he was much more put off by it:

Reading Ngaio Marsh's Swing, Brother, Swing--poor, and if she's going to try and write about jazz bands, why the hell can't she find out something about them.  'Tympanist,' indeed.

In the novel the latest enthusiasm of Lord Pastern (still remember him?) is playing drums in a jazz band.  Marsh uses the terms drums and tympani interchangeably, which apparent my is what irritated the hell out of Crispin.

The jazz band in question is that of popular London bandleader Breezy Bellairs.  Piano-accordionist Carlos Rivera, with whom Lord Pastern's stepdaughter Felicite ("Fee") is much enamored, is one of Breezy Bellairs' Boys (nice alliteration there).  Yet another is drummer Sid Skelton, whom the vain Lord Pastern wants to replace with himself as drummer-cum-tympanist. 

Skelton, by the way, is an Australian Communist, which means he's doubly damned with chips on his shoulder in the author's eyes.  "He's an odd chap," Alleyn pronounces, "a truculent Communist."  He didn't strike me personally as all hat truculent, really, but then Marsh (and Alleyn) never lived to see the tweets these days on Twitter.

However, among the band members, it's the oleaginous Breezy Bellairs (who is so determined to supplicate Lord Pastern's whim's that he imperils his own band's existence) and most of all the utterly awful Carlos Rivera who draw most of the envenomed attention from the author's poison pen.  (The other band members barely register one way or the other.)

To be sure, as Boucher noted, Marsh does view the aristocrats involved with this jazz band somewhat sardonically, though I recollect that some of that quality was present in her Thirties novel Death in a White Tie as well, the one about the social cruelty of "coming out" balls.  I would go far as to say they are, the whole bunch at Duke's Gate, profoundly unlikable.  Lord Pastern is all raging ego, with little of Lord Berners' reputed charm and actual talent (however whimsically applied), but haughty Lady Pastern and flighty Fee  are not much better, really.

Lisle is more sympathetic, being the standard Ngaio "nice girl" outsider or relation (with an androgynous name like, well, "Ngaio"), who stands somewhat coolly apart from the kooky family and provides a focal point of normality for the reader.  There's also a nice boy, Edward Manx ("Ned"--none of these younger people go by their actual birth names, seemingly), a second cousin of Lord Pastern's; and if you've waded into enough Ngaio Marshes you may well feel you know where this subplot in going--though in fact Ned is a more suspicious character than the usual Ngaio nice boy. 

Still, both are attractive and seem nice and they appear to care about the world, as Lisle has been doing something vague in Greek famine relief (though no one at Duke's Gate is remotely interested) and all Ned's books seem to come from the Left Book Club (though he's not an actual Communist evidently--maybe he was in remission like George Orwell).

The sounds he made were frankly lewd....
Bandleader Lawrence Welk (1903-1992)
on the piano-accordion--Would
Ngaio have liked his playing?

But what really arouses Marsh's ire far more than her aristocrats is jazz and jazz musicians.  "All swing bandsmen," Lisle thinks while watching a performance of Breezy's Boys, "ought to be Negroes.  There's something wrong about their not being Negroes."  Now, maybe Marsh was in the vanguard of the cultural appropriation movement, but I think probably not.  When even the "nice" characters think disapprovingly of the "frankly lewd" jazz and the "lascivious virtuosity" of its players--well, draw your own conclusions. 

Now, I had a great aunt who married a band leader in Amarillo, Texas back in 1936, by the way, and I'll have you know he was personally quite respectable, thank you, even though he played the saxophone and the trombone.  Thankfully no piano-accordion, I guess!

The woman singer with the band (often mocked in the day as a "croonerette") gets a derisive treatment from the author as well during her brief appearance:

She...began to moo very earnestly: "Yeoo knee-oo it was onlee summer lightning."  Carlisle and Edward both detested her.

Yes, she "mooed."  Ngaio went there.  Really, sometimes in her cattiness Ngaio sounds like she was channeling the late Karl Lagerfeld.

Karl Lagerfeld
It is Carlos Rivera whom Marsh most loathes, however.  Over and over people, including Alleyn himself, complaining that he's "all flashing teeth and hair oil."  Of course, as Marsh portrays him, he's a genuinely despicable villain, a drug dealer and blackmailer; but even before we learn the full depths of his villainy, he's damned for comparatively minor things, like the fact that he has decorated his flat in a purple and green color scheme (!!) and he wears black satin pajamas (!!!). To Alleyn this is, only partly tongue in cheek, "damning and conclusive evidence as to character."

Ngaio is really laying it on thick here, but then she does seem so often to judge books by their outlandish covers.  (See my prior post on her Lagerfeldish portrayal of overweight people in Black as He's Painted). 

Marsh seems as bothered by Carlos's various gaucheries as she is by his genuine moral evil.  With Marsh I do tend to wonder whether vulgarity is not the greatest of all sins: "Thou Shalt Not be Vulgar, Darling," saith the Lord. 

And of course the fact that Carlos is from Argentina doesn't help in this sort of book, as Carlos bu several people gets dinged as a "dago" several times over the course of the novel (as well as a swine and a cad, seriously).  It's kind of dispiriting that someone as smart as Ngaio took such a lazy course here, in 1949, when Anglo-American entertainment was belatedly starting to recognize that "ethnic" people merited respectful treatment in film and fiction as real human beings and not just as minor rogues and comic relief for the WASP readership.

Were this book adapted today for television by, say, Sarah Phelps, Phelps would find, I have no doubt, that what Marsh really wanted, but for some reason couldn't do at the time, was to portray Carlos as a heroic, put-upon character and Fee as his true-blue gal, defying her racist parents by taking a Latin lover.  Then the murder victim would be Lord Pastern, or perhaps Lady Pastern (or more likely both), and Carlos would be unjustly suspected, then probably arrested and hanged and Fee naturally would drink cleaning fluid in despair.

Hm, okay, maybe what Ngaio did wasn't so bad after all!  But, no, it still is, really.  Surely there's got to be some middle ground.  It would take Ngaio a while to find it, however.  My dear!  Middle ground is so common!!

Well, this will never play in America!
Desi Arnaz (TV's Ricky Ricardo) and tympani, er, bongo
The man in the novel Ngaio really admires is Roderick Alleyn, of course. 

Her surrogate Lisle  takes time scrutinize the elegant profile of  "Handsome Alleyn" in the early morning hours after the murder and ruminate that if Fee gets a good luck at this posh man too, "it'll be all up" with all her other boys.  Because every woman, from age 20 to 80, goes all silly-girlish over Alleyn, apparently. 

Even though he will insist on saying things like this:

"Fox, my cabbage, my rare edition, my objet d'art, my own especial bijouterie...."

There are places where you call a guy a cabbage and you get a fast punch across the jaw, I say, but not in the Yard, apparently.  Maybe the guys there are all in love with Handsome Alleyn as well.

Run for your life!  He's got a trombone!
But, through it all, I still enjoyed Swing, Brother, Swing, primarily because it's a swinging mystery.  A lot of bloggers of the more puzzle purist sort dismiss Marsh's books, but as I stated before in my piece on the author's Off with His Head, Marsh often had a grand, dare I say theatrical, sense of how to commit a bizarre, yet fairly clued, murder.  As a director of stage plays Marsh knew how to "stage" a murder, as it were.  In some of books, like this one (and Off with His Head), the murder actually takes place on stage, but seemingly it paradoxically could not have happened. 

It's all rather akin to a John Dickson Carr miracle problem, in other words--something you would think would please the Carr crowd in the blogging community.

The crime here--the murder of Carlos Rivera during a gimmicky performance of "Hot Guy, Hot Gunner," wherein Lord Pastern is supposed to fire a gun loaded with blanks at Rivera (As Joanne Drayton noted, Marsh seems inspired by the Forties comic antics of outlandish American bandleader Spike Jones here)--is neatly carried out in the Golden Age baroque tradition.  I thought it superior to Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery, for what it's worth. 

There's a nicely managed subsidiary mystery as well, though all in all the resolution of the whole thing conforms, I think, to the author's general biases.  Christie, as Robert Barnard has remarked, was trickier in this respect.  He called her the "disappearing author" because she hid her biases so much better than other mystery writers.  Or maybe it's the inherent challenge of writing more character-driven mystery, as Golden Age genre theoreticians like Dorothy L. Sayers commented back in the day.  Revealing character in a mystery is like revealing cards in a game of poker.

Still, Swing, Brother, Swing is a peppy number I would recommend, on the whole. Although back in the Forties I would have advised Edmund Wilson and Raymond Chandler, if they didn't want to feel impelled to tear out what remained of their hair, to keep far away from its pages.

Other blog reviews:
http://wordcount-richmonde.blogspot.com/2015/05/ngaio-marshs-swing-brother-swing.html
https://grandestgame.wordpress.com/list-of-authors/ngaio-marsh/swing-brother-swing-ngaio-marsh/
http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2016/05/swing-brother-swing-by-ngaio-marsh.html

Friday, March 8, 2019

Out of Africa 3: Black as He's Painted (1974), by Ngaio Marsh

"We were at school together in the same house: Davidson's.  Same study, for a year.  Nice creature, he was.  Not everybody's cup of tea, but I liked him.  We got on like houses on fire." (Roderick Alleyn on his friend, an African dictator known as "The Boomer")

[The Boomer] was an astute, devoted and at times ruthless dictator with, it had to be added, a warm capacity for friendship.  He was also extremely observant.  "And funny," Alleyn thought, controlling himself.  "It's quite maddening of him to be funny as well."

Eleven months ago, I did a long post on Ngaio Marsh's composition of her Roderick Alleyn detective novel Black as He's Painted, but I got so sidetracked discussing the bizarre orgy of fat-shaming in which Dame Ngaio indulges herself that I never got around, really, to discussing the meat of the novel's racial angle.

The plot of the novel, which as mentioned by me earlier is an odd combination of (rather charming) cat mystery and political thriller, concerns a conspiracy to assassinate the President of the emerging African nation of Ng'ombwana, a former British colony, while he is making a state visit to the United Kingdom.

the UK's Queen Elizabeth II and
Malawi Life President Hastings Banda
prior to a State Banquet at Windsor Castle
(1985), looking quite chummy
Banda is wearing the Order of Bath
see Royal Collection Trust
The President, His Excellency Bartholomew Opala, CBE, is referred to as "The Boomer," on account of his nickname from school days in England, when he was a great pal of, you guessed it, our series hero and all round super posh bro: Roderick Alleyn, Superintendent in the CID.

When Black as He's Painted was published in wild and crazy 1974--a few years after the horrific Charles Manson murders in California, a year after the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III in Rome (where Ngaio Marsh had set her recent mystery When in Rome) and the same year that Patty Hearst was kidnapped in the US--"Handsome Alleyn" had been in the sleuthing game for four decades, but in this book he remains as winsomely unflappable as ever, burbling to his long-suffering underling Inspector Fox, when Fox asks him how his meeting with their Assistant Commissioner went:

Charm and sweet reason were the wastewords of his ween.

No I don't know what he means either, but I bet it's something sexual on Urban Dictionary.  Oh, wait, that would be peen, not ween.  Now, that would be vulgar!  Alleyn would never be that.

Marsh has been criticized for her portrayals of black characters in this novel and in Clutch of Constables six years earlier, but at least she's really trying to write from a sympathetic viewpoint, where when she's writing about overweight people, her daggers are drawn for the kill.  Speaking for myself, a white guy who was all of eight years old when this novel was published, I think she does a creditable job--better, I imagine, than would have Agatha Christie, whose portrayal of black hostel students in Hickory Dickory Dock (1955) was righteously slammed by Robert Barnard as "shame making caricatures." 

I think the important thing is that Ngaio here knows her limits.  When Alleyn and The Boomer have a fundamental disagreement about security arrangements in England which threatens their relationship, Alleyn suddenly realizes that there are things he doesn't understand about his old friend: "for the first time...he thought, specifically, 'I am speaking to a Negro."  That term "negro" likely rankles today, but this was a time not too far removed from when a prominent white liberal American historian, in writing a history of slavery pronounced--broadmindedly, as he thought--that black men were simply to be viewed as white men with black skin.  Ngaio's humility, I think, goes over better today than that sort of unconscious white paternalism.

Alleyn has other moments of long-overdue self-awareness in the novel.  "What an insufferable boy I must have been," he remarks when The Boomer discusses old school days with him.  I can imagine!

"[T]his thing we discuss," The Boomer tells Alleyn, "now belongs to my colour and my race.  My blackness.  Please, do not try to understand: try only, my dear Rory, to accept."

Queen Elizabeth on inspection during a visit to Malawi in 1972,
with Banda and Malawi military officers in the background

The Boomer's pronouncements can have, to be sure, a conveniently self-serving aspect.  When The Boomer pronounces:

Not only do I know it [that previous assassination attempts on him were predestined to fail] but my people--my people--know it in their souls.  It is one of the reasons I am reelected unanimously to lead my country.

Alleyn wonders (but doesn't say) whether "it was also one of the reasons why nobody, so far, had had the temerity to oppose him."

Who might Ngaio have had in mind when she created Bartholomew Opala?  One candidate I have in mind is Hastings Banda (1898-1997), President for three decades (1964-1994) of Malawi, the former British protectorate of Nyasaland.

After initially opposing Banda and even jailing him for a time, the political leaders in the UK came around to supporting him as leader of the country when it was finally accepted, in the early Sixties, that independence was inevitable.  As President of Malawi, Banda was pro-Western in an era when Western nations were locked in a Cold War with an Eastern Bloc controlled by the Soviet Union.  Both sides were competing for supremacy around the globe, including in the many emerging nations of Africa, where the shackles of western colonialism were being snapped and there was in many quarters much resentment of colonial oppressors and exploiters. 

By siding with the West, Banda was able to extract many favors.  There were many state visits that took place between the UK and Malawi, with Banda traveling to England to visit Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Elizabeth to visit Banda in her former protectorate.  She visited Malawi in 1972, a year before Marsh began writing Black as He's Painted.

Banda as a younger man in the West
Another reason that Banda was popular with western governments was that he had had prolonged personal exposure to the West, for over 25 years living successively in the US, where he received his first medical degree at a respected black college, Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, and the UK, where he received a second medical degree in Edinburgh, Scotland and successfully practiced medicine in the English cities of Liverpool, Newcastle and London. 

As a child he had been baptized in 1910 into the Church of Scotland by a Scottish missionary in Africa, and in the 1940s he was made a church elder.

As president, note our friends at Wikipedia, Banda was externally viewed "as a benign, albeit eccentric, leader, an image fostered by his English-style three-piece suits, matching handkerchiefs, walking stick and fly-whisk." 

Within Malawi, however

views on him ranged from cult-like devotion to fear.  He portrayed himself as a caring headmaster to his people.  However, this was a mask for a government that was rigidly authoritarian even by African standards of the time.  Banda himself bluntly summed up his approach to ruling the country by saying: "Everything is my business.  Everything.  Anything I say is law...."

Banda was finally democratically ousted from power in 1994--at the age of 96!  He was three years younger than Ngaio Marsh but outlived her by 15 years, outlasting the Cold War and the Soviet Union and dying three years after his ouster at the age of 99.  He remains a controversial figure, beloved and despised, today.

Whether Marsh had him mind when she wrote Black as He's Painted, Banda certainly seems to have had many of the characteristic of "The Boomer," especially as Banda might have been viewed by many in the West in 1974.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

What Would Christie Do? Judge Her by Her Works, Part 2

Agatha Christie, creator of eccentric Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, famously devised a fictional alter ego for herself in Poirot's mystery writing friend Ariadne Oliver, creator of eccentric Finnish detective Sven Hjerson.  Christie admitted that Mrs. Oliver, who appears in seven Agatha Christie novels published between 1936 and 1972, "does have a strong dash of myself.

It's meta, people!  Although it's highly doubtful to me that Christie would have appreciated what Sarah Phelps currently is grimly doing to her work, I think she would have appreciated the Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat Sherlock series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  Gatiss and Moffat chose puckishly and creatively to play with the Holmes canon rather than highhandedly and brutally annihilate it.

In the Christie novels Mrs. Oliver often expresses irritation with her quirky vegetarian detective, ruefully admitting that she knows nothing  about Finland.  Yet would she have been comfortable with a Sarah Phelps adaptation which almost entirely rewrites Sven? 

Happily, we can deduce the answer based on comments Mrs. Oliver herself makes in Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952), when she is working with a rather precious playwright, Robin Upward, on his effort to adapt a Sven Hjerson novel for the stage. 

television's Ariadne Oliver (Zoe Wanamaker)
It does not seem promising:

At Laburnums, collaboration was in process.  Robin Upward was saying earnestly:


"You do see, don't you, what a wonderful line that is?  And if we really get a feeling of sex antagonism between the chap and the girl it'll pep up the whole thing enormously!"

Mrs. Oliver ran her hands through her windswept grey hair, causing it took as though swept not by wind but by a tornado.

"You do see what I mean, don't you, Ariadne darling?"


"Oh, I see what you mean," said Mrs. Oliver gloomily.

"But the main thing is for you to feel really happy about it."

Nobody but a really determined self-deceiver could have thought that Mrs. Oliver looked happy.

Robin continued blithely:

"What I feel is, there's that wonderful young man, parachuted down--"

Mrs. Oliver interrupted:

"He's sixty."

"Oh no!"

"He is."

"I don't see him like that.  Thirty-five--not a day older."

"I've been writing books about him for thirty years, and he was at least thirty-five in the first one."

"But, darling, if he's sixty, you can't have the tension between him and the girl--what's her name?  Ingrid.  I mean, it would make him just a nasty old man!"

"It certainly would."

"So you see, he must be thirty-five," said Robin triumphantly.

"Then he can't be Sven Hjerson.  Just make him a Norwegian young man who's in the Resistance Movement."  

"But darling Ariadne, the whole point of the play is Sven Hjerson.  You've got an enormous public who simply adore Sven Hjerson, and who'll flock to see Sven Hjerson.  He's box office, darling!"

"But people who read my books know what he's like.  You can't invent an entirely new young man in the Norwegian Resistance Movement and and just call him Sven Hjerson."

"Ariadne darling, I did explain all that.  It's not a book, darling, it's a play.  And we've got to have glamour!  And if we get this tension, this antagonism between Sven Hjerson and this--what's her name--Karen--you know, all against each other and then frightfully attracted--"

"Sven Hjerson never cared for women," said Mrs. Oliver coldly.

"But you can't have him a
pansy, darling.  Not for this sort of play.  I mean it's not green bay trees or anything like that.  It's thrills and murders and clean open-air fun."

The mention of open air had its effect.

"I think I'm going out," said Mrs. Oliver abruptly.  I need air.  I need air badly."

"Shall I come with you?" asked Robin tenderly.

"No, I'd rather be alone."

"Just as you like, darling.  Perhaps you're right.  I'd better go and whip up an eggnog for Madre.  The poor sweet is feeling just a teeny weeny bit left out of things.  She does like attention, you know.  And you'll think about that scene in the cellar, won't you?  The whole thing is coming really wonderfully well.  It's going to be a most tremendous success.  I know it is!"

Mrs. Oliver sighed.

"But the main thing," continued Robin, "is for you to feel happy about it!"


Well.  This scene seems to me to capture a lot about the frustrations of adaptation, from the novelist's perspective, and it has great applicability to the situation with Christie, Poirot and Phelps today. 

Robin Upward blithely changes the sixty-year-old, woman-indifferent Finn, Sven Hjerson, into a lusty thirty-five year old (and not a day older) member of the Norwegian Resistance, enmeshed in a love-hate affair with a sexy young woman--Ingrid, or Karen (Robin can't quite recall her name, it seems).  Apparently all these changes are needed for the public, who, Robin fervently believes, wants glamour and a ravishing female love interest for the hero.  Just replace dashing boy-girl sexual byplay with existential gloom and psychic despair and we have the Phelps Poirot.

When Mrs. Oliver asks why Robin doesn't just create a new hero, since what he's describing is not her character and never could be, Robin tells her they need Sven Hjerson--his name anyway--because "He's box office darling!"  Yes, there's the rub, indeed.  It's as if Christie were looking into a crystal ball.

All the while Robin implausibly insists that what's really important to him is that Mrs. Oliver be happy with all the changes that she's so obviously unhappy with.  Fortunately Mrs. Oliver was alive to speak out in defense of her character.  As irritating as she might find him, he was her child, not Robin Upward's. 

Sadly here in 2019 Agatha Christie is long gone, as is her daughter, and it seems that there is no longer anyone connected with the Agatha Christie Industry who will speak out on behalf Christie's artistic vision, as it actually appears on the printed page.  (Instead they go looking for the "secret, sinister" Christie, who really, it seems, wanted to write Belgian noir.)

Who killed Agatha Christie?  Even
Japp and Hastings might know the answer to this one.
Recently, David Suchet, who played what now seems likely to remain the definitive Hercule Poirot on British television for a quarter century, delicately observed, when asked his opinion of the new Phelps-scripted adaptation of the classic Poirot mystery The ABC Murders, that
"the parameters were different when he took on the role in 1989." 

Then he added:

My brief from Agatha Christie's daughter was 'we want it played as she wrote it,' which actually fitted with my philosophy of acting, to serve my creator.


Were such modesty more common, in life and in art!  Even if, it must be admitted, some of the later Suchet Poirots went off the rails rather a bit themselves.  But it was a good run, while it lasted, better than what many writers have received from the frequently ungentle hands of adapters. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

There's More Red Herrings in the Sea: Five Golden Age Adaptation Options Besides Agatha (and Fifteen More to Follow up on)

Say you've read all the mysteries of Agatha Christie, even the relatively undistinguished ones like Destination Unknown and Third Girl, and the outright disasters like Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate.  In fact say you've actually read them all, the good and great ones anyway, two or three times or more.  And you've read all those Sophie Hannah continuations.  And you've seen all the Christie films and series.  Don't you occasionally hanker for something more in the mystery line besides your beloved Agatha Christie? 

Here are some suggestions for producers of mystery films and series, all of them prolific accomplished authors from the Golden Age, who created popular series sleuths and, best of all, are actually in print today (in all or in part):

1. Margery Allingham (1904-1966)

Margery Allingham
Margery Allingham is one of the few mystery writers I know of who truly deserves the description "Dickensian."  Her well-mysteries are filled with colorful and quirky characters and situations.  If they are too posh for modern day filmmakers, with aristocratic amateur sleuth Albert Campion, there's always his gross, earthy sidekick, Lugg.  And some of Allingham's books, like the much-lauded The Tiger in the Smoke and the even better, in my view, Hide My Eyes, have genuinely psychotic villains, which should appeal to the Phelpses of the film and television world. 

Sarah Phelps wouldn't even need to invent grotesques for The Tiger in the Smoke, as she does with Agatha Christie.  Granted, eight Campion novels were filmed three decades ago for the two-season Campion television series, starring the superb Peter Davison, but it's time, I would say, for an update.

More in this vein: Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Nicholas Blake, Michael Innes, Georgette Heyer (no posh sleuths but a lot of posh suspects)

2. Henry Wade (1887-1969)

Henry Wade in WW1
One of the forgotten masters of Golden Age mystery and a subject of my book The Spectrum of English Murder, Henry Wade has been brought back into print in the last few years.  If, like Sarah Phelps, you want to adapt searing mysteries dealing with the baneful impact of the First World War, Wade is your man!  Himself a privileged baronet and wealthy country landowner, Wade casts a commendably wide social net in his book, though there are, to be sure, a large number of manor houses for the Downton Abbey crowd.  But above all his books (like The Dying Alderman, for example) offer psychologically and socially realistic studies of life in England from the Twenties through the Fifites, which ostensibly is what interests Phelps.  Although there is sardonic humor in them, they often take a pessimistic, sometimes grim, view of the state of man and the world, which is also, most conveniently, the fashionable modern take. 

Of all Golden Age writers, Wade is one I find closet in spirit to PD James, far closer than Dorothy L. Sayers actually.  Only some of his books have series sleuth Inspector Poole, but Poole could be written into the standalones.

More in this vein: E. R. Punshon

3. Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957)

Freeman Wills Crofts
The Golden Age master of the unbreakable alibi, Freeman Wills Crofts produced one of the archetypal British police detectives, the ever-dutifully striving Inspector Joseph French. 

Admittedly modern day filmmakers would find French a rather dull dog: He's so upright and virtuous and happily married to his equally upright and virtuous wife Emily.  However, Em could be tragically and horribly killed off and "Soapy Joe," as French is known, could spiral into an abysmal alcoholic depression. 

Crofts was a fine plotter, so adapters could let the plots take care of themselves, one hopes, while they flesh out Crofts' rather cardboard characters.  The fervently religious author would not have liked explicit sex and language in adaptations of his books, but what do modern-day filmmakers care! 

One way in which Crofts was very modern was in his criticism of big business corruption, which fills his Thirties mysteries, like Mystery in the Channel.  Modern filmmakers should find that aspect of his detective novels a most congenial one.

More in this vein: R. Austin Freeman, John Rhode/Miles Burton (John Street), J. J. Connington, Christopher Bush, John Bude

4. Gladys Mitchell (1901-1983)

Gladys Mitchell
The "Great Gladys" was unique in Golden Age mystery, with her screeching, reptilian psychiatrist detective Mrs. Bradley.  Her books are filled with bizarre, often grotesque, situations and aberrant behavior.  The plots don't always make total sense, at least not readily, but there is great zest in the telling, especially in the Thirties and Forties.  About twenty years ago, British television tried to do a Mrs. Bradley series, casting as the formidable Dame the the beautiful and posh Diana Rigg.  With all due respect to the Great Diana, it didn't work, and it's time to try again.

More in this vein: John Dickson Carr (a much more disciplined plotter than Mitchell, but with a similar taste for the bizarre and for odd detectives with outsize personalities)

5. Moray Dalton (1882-1963)

Only now coming back into print, Moray Dalton (really Katherine Mary Dalton Renoir) resembles the Crime Queens in many ways, having a decided knack for narrative and characterization.

ordeal by arsenic
a superb crime novel about a
dysfunctional genteel family
Yet for me she is a bit less "posh" (there's that word again) of a writer than Sayers, Allingham and Marsh and explores sexual and class dynamics in Thirties and Forties Britain in more original ways.  See, for example, Death in the Cup and The Strange Case of Harriet Hall, which have some truly striking and refreshing situations. 

I think that Dalton, who seems to have lived life as something of a privileged outsider, may have been more of a forerunner of the modern crime novel than these other, more famous women, estimable as they are.  Her primary sleuth, Hugh Collier, is an appealing young police detective, but modern filmmakers I'm sure could find some grim and terrible qualities to impose on him.  so get cracking, you people!  Five titles by her are coming out in just a few days.

More in this vein: Anthony Gilbert (Lucy Beatrice Malleson), ECR Lorac/Carol Carnac (Edith Caroline Rivett), H. C. Bailey

Well, there you have it.  Would the Powers-That-Be but listen!  In the meantime, you can eagerly await Agatha Christie's gruesome satanic Sixties sex orgies, coming soon in Sarah Phelps' adaptation of The Pale Horse, a Christie novel already filmed back in 1997 (with Andy Serkis as a cop! Oh, cool!) and 2010 (with Miss Marple as the detective! Oh, *!#!^!).

Sunday, February 24, 2019

What Would Christie Do? Judge Her by Her Works, Part One

At a screening of The ABC Murders in December of last year, scripter Sarah Phelps dismissed as "manufactured outrage" all the complaints from Agatha Christie traditionalists about the massive alterations of Christie's works in Phelps' recent adaptations.  Conceding that in her books the Queen of Crime "might not have written any sex or swearing or drug-taking and whatever," Phelps nevertheless declared, "I'm sure she would have if she could."

Evidently Phelps in making this declaration is relying on her self-professed knowledge of the "secret, sinister" Agatha whom she has divined (see my last post), the one who would have enjoyed using the, erm, more forthright four-letter words and who, "if she could," would have included in her books such Phelps scripted scenes as these from The ABC Murders, described in a revolted article in The Atlantic:

Phelps has taken the grande dame of drawing room detective fiction and made her stories so grotesque, so deranged, that they're almost comical.  The low point for me in The ABC Murders...was the focus on a yellow, pus-filled boil on the back of a man's neck--so yellow it seemed almost to vibrate on camera--as another man grimly spears open the yolk of his fried egg.  In another scene, the actor Shirley Henderson's character, lipstick smeared all over her face, berates the daughter she rents out to men for a shilling, screeching, "I wish I'd used a knitting needle on you."

....Phelps has dreamed [additional scenes] featuring the use of high heels and silk stockings in sexualized torture rituals....It might seem unimaginable in Christie's genteel but biting stories to insert, say, a visual of an overflowing receptacle of urine.  Not for Phelps, though, who's now used this motif twice, in The ABC Murders as well in the grimly vicious Ordeal by Innocence.


These are the adaptations which have prompted Christie great-grandson James Prichard not to high dudgeon but to a meek thanks to Phelps for having helped him learn "a lot about my great-grandmother's work...."  He adds: "I now read it differently."  Oh, my dear James, I'm afraid you've been led up a (rather dark) garden.

Instead of looking for subtextual clues to this putative "secret, sinister" Agatha--the Agatha whom Phelps feels sure wanted really to write about stiletto-heeled sadists, pus-filled boils and overflowing urine--why not look at the words Christie actually wrote right up front in her books, words which seem to make clear how she felt about such matters?

Here is, I think, the voice of Christie, expressed through Miss Marple, on modern novels in her detective novel A Caribbean Mystery (1964):

modern filmmakers should find
this Christie cover most congenial
She thought, on the whole, that [her nephew Raymond West] was fond of her--he always had been--in a slightly exasperated and contemptuous way!  Always trying to bring her up to date.  Sending her books to read.  Modern novels.  So difficult--all about such unpleasant people, doing such very odd things and not, apparently, even enjoying them.  "Sex" as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple's young days, but there had been plenty of it--not talked about so much--but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her.  Though usually labeled Sin, she couldn't help feeling that that was preferable to what it seemed to be nowadays--a kind of Duty.

Her glance strayed for a moment to the book lying on her lap open at page twenty-three which was as far as she had got (and indeed as far as she felt like getting!):

"Do you mean that you've had no sexual experience at ALL?" demanded the young man incredulously.  "At nineteen?  But you must.  It's vital."

The girl hung her head unhappily, her straight, greasy hair fell forward over her face.

"I know," she muttered.  "I know."

He looked at her, the stained jersey, the bare feet, the dirty toe nails, the smell of rancid fat....He wondered why he found her so maddeningly attractive.

Miss Marple wondered too.  And really!  To have sex experience urged on you exactly as if it was an iron tonic.  Poor young things....

"My dear Aunt Jane, why must you bury your head in the sand like a very delightful ostrich.  All bound up in this idyllic rural life of yours.  REAL LIFE--that's what matters."

Thus Raymond.  And his Aunt Jane had looked properly abashed and said "Yes," she was afraid she was rather old-fashioned.

Though really rural life was far from idyllic.  People like Raymond were so ignorant.  In the course of her duties in a country parish, Jane Marple had acquired quite a comprehensive knowledge of the facts of rural life.  She had no urge to talk about them, far less to write about them--but she knew them.  Plenty of sex, natural and unnatural.  Rape, incest, perversion of all kinds.  (Some kinds, indeed, that even the clever young men from Oxford who wrote about books didn't seem to have heard about.)

Scene from A Taste of Honey (1961)
kitchen sink realism was not really Christie's thing

It's hard for me not to see this passage as a defense by Christie of the so-called "cozy" style of crime writing against all the postwar up-and-comers who had gained ground since the Second World War.  People like the hard-boiled writers and the noirists, such as Patrica Highsmith and Jim Thompson, who did focus on the seamy side of life (and death).  Christie appears to be saying, look, I know all that nastiness too, but I choose not to write about it, at least not explicitly.  And she utterly rejected Phelps's squalid nihilism.

Although Christie then was a worldwide bestseller, before people like myself (and I assume Ms. Phelps) were born, there nevertheless were plenty of smart critics condemning Christie for being old-fashioned and out-of-touch with the unpleasant realities that everyone allegedly wanted to read about in the Atomic Age.  Of course the truth is that a lot of people didn't want to read about those things, which I why they read Agatha Christie, and Patricia Wentworth, and Ngaio Marsh, and Michael Innes, and John Dickson Carr, and Rex Stout, and Ellery Queen.  It doesn't mean, by the way, that these works were all anodyne and insubstantial, but it does mean that in them one won't be reading about the sort of repulsive sordidness which so obviously intrigues Sarah Phelps and many television reviewers.

there were plenty of people in
the 1950s and 1960s including
more explicit sex and violence in
their crime fiction--Agatha Christie
simply did not want to be one
of these people
Sure, Christie got tired of Hercule Poirot, with all his arguably forced Belgian whimsy and his artificial mannerisms and--don't discount this--his devilishly difficult to write clue puzzles.  For relief from Poirot, Christie turned to the standalone mysteries, Tommy and Tuppence (still rather jolly, if superannuated) and, most of all, Miss Marple, the country-est and coziest of her sleuths.  Miss Marple, who started off representing her mother's and grandmother's generations, more and more came to represent the author herself. 

Some of Christie's standalone mysteries, like Ordeal by Innocence and Endless Night, represent Phelps's "secret, sinister" Christie, in that they presage modern-day psychological suspense and the dysfunctional family gloom of the modern crime novel (puzzle purist Jacques Barzun hated Ordeal by Innocence).  This, by the by, makes it all the more troubling that Phelps, ostensibly mindful of the "secret, sinister" Christie, chose so to alter Ordeal by Innocence

Even some of the cozier Marples, to be sure, have some dark threads in the cozy quilt.  For example, I've always found the posthumously published Sleeping Murder, which I believe would have been titled Cover Her Face had PD James not preempted Christie with her debut 1962 mystery, highly sinister.  Since Phelps likes portraying sexually perverse behavior so much, this one should have been a natural for her.

But it's not just the explicit sexuality and four-letter words in Phelps' adaptations which would have bothered Christie, it's most of all the relentless and determined ugliness and the seemingly irredeemably pessimistic view of human nature.  Look at that above quotation from A Caribbean Mystery again. 

What bothered Christie about the modern novels which she lampoons wasn't so much the sex per se, but the utter gloomy squalidness of it all.  Look how she complains about that poor young woman's greasy straight hair and rancid fat and dirty toe nails.  If she's going to get it on, Christie must have been thinking, why can't she at least bathe first and brush her hair?  But, most of all, having sex, if you're going to do it, is something to be enjoyed (and it helps if neither partner smells).  People didn't seem to enjoy sex, or anything else, in modern novels.  Just like they don't in Phelps' film adaptations of Christie's novels, where everyone seems determined to be utterly miserable. 

I may be beating a dead (pale) horse at this point, but to say that these latest Christie adaptations represent the sort of thing Christie really wanted to write strikes me as self-deluding at best and damnably disingenuous at worst.  Were the Queen of Crime resurrected and given a choice strictly between writing Phelps' sort of nasty, nihilistic noir or modern-day cozy cat crimes, I think the meows most definitely would have it.