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|
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 pastel colors, decking his dogs in pearl necklaces, having Penelope Betjeman's pale horse over 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 (in skull cap), Rupert (holding baby) and Jennifer (looking on)
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 rather 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|
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
"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|
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|
To look after 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 fictional 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 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.
Recently I 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 jolly 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|
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
However, another traditionalist who often agreed with Barzun, Edmund Crispin, rendered a dissenting opinion. In January 1966, a morose time in the slowly dying 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 is playing drums in a jazz band. Marsh uses the terms drums and tympani interchangeably, which apparently 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 that truculent, really, but then Marsh (and Alleyn) never lived to see tweets 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 venom from the author's poisoned 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 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 Ned's books all 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?
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.
Ngaio is really laying it on 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 by 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 bigoted parents by taking a Latin lover. Then the murder victim, bloodily beaten to death, 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. Finis.
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
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 look at this posh man too, "it'll be all up" for good 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, not to mention a bijouterie, 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's precious ways as well. After all, they were already used to Lord Peter and Albert Campion.
|Run for your life! He's got a trombone!|
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 attitudes 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: