Tuesday, April 2, 2013

An Edmund Wilson Moment (courtesy of Ngaio Marsh, Death at the Bar)

Edmund Wilson
He was not amused.
The noted American man of letters Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) is known to Golden Age detective fiction fandom as the humorless scold who hated classical detective fiction and attacked works by all the celebrated British Crime Queens.

I hate Wilson's dismissive attitude to classical detective fiction as much as the next person, but I must admit that a passage I came across recently in Crime Queen Ngaio Marsh's Death at the Bar (1940) struck me as just the sort of thing that must have positively set on edge the teeth of such classical detective fiction flayers as Wilson.

Here in Death at the Bar is the introduction of Ngaio Marsh's fancypants police detective, ever-so-aristocratic Roderick Alleyn, on page 87:

"Summer," said Chief Detective-Inpsector Alleyn moodily, "is acoming in and my temper is agoing out.  Lhude sing cuccu.  I find that the length of my patience, Fox, fluctuates in an inverse ratio with the length of days."

"Don't you like the warm weather?" asked Detective-Inspector Fox.

"Yes, Fox, but not in London.  Not in the Yard.  Not in the streets, where one feels dirty half an hour after one has bathed.  Not when one is obliged to breath the fumes of petrol and the body-odour of those who come to make statements and remain to smell.  That creature who left us stank abominably.  However, the case is closed, which is a slight alleviation."

Maybe it was the bad smells
that killed him?
Okay, I have to admit that Alleyn's reference to the thirteenth-century English rota known as The Cuckoo Song or "Summer Is Icumen In" ("Lhude sing cuccu," the second line, translates to "Loudly sing, cuckoo") caused me to resort to an internet search.  It raises the question--to my mind at least--of whether poor Inspector Fox even half the time had any notion of what Alleyn (verily, the Yard's most twee of tecs) was burbling about.

Then there's Alleyn complaining about being cruelly subjected to body odor in London.  Nobody made you take the job, my good man.  Recall that your hoity-toity relations wanted you to enter the foreign service!  Perhaps you should have heeded them. Smelly Londoners already had Lord Peter and Albert Campion (not to mention Hercule Poirot) to solve their murders for them, anyway.

To be even-handed about this sort of thing (which many critics of classical detective fiction often aren't!), about the same time that Death fatefully entered the bar at Ngaio Marsh's behest hard-boiled master Raymond Chandler gave us the extended and quite unfortunate "The Indian smelled" passage in his classic tough tale Farewell, My Lovely (1940). See Rebecca's complaint about this passage over at Goodreads.

Like Edmund Wilson, Chandler may have loathed Roderick Alleyn, but apparently Alleyn had something in common with Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe: a sensitive nose.

Mama was right, I should have been a diplomat--
in one of those pleasant-smelling countries....

Obviously, Death at the Bar did not much appeal to me, but I do like other works by Ngaio Marsh and I will make sure to review one of these works in the future. In the meantime, my next piece will concern a locked room mystery by Bill Pronzini, whose seventieth birthday is this month.  Happy birthday, Bill!


  1. Ahem, Farewell...

    Death at the Bar is not one of her best. She was a variable writer. Surfeit of Lampreys is dreadful (the Lampreys, based on a family she adored, are ghastly). But When in Rome and Clutch of Constables, to name but two, could almost have been written by a different person. They're full of observation, atmosphere, humour and insight.

  2. Richmonde, what do you think of Death and the Dancing Footman? I was going to review Death at the Bar, but after page 87 I decided to switch to Footman, lol. It's a country house setting and some of the characters are twits, but I'm actually kind of enjoying the artificiality of it all!

    I have read all her books, but it's been some time with a lot of them. I did reread Artists in Crime, Death in a White Tie and some others a few years ago. I like some of her books, but I do tend to find Alleyn grating in some of the earlier ones. I think it's because he's supposed to be a professional policeman and he burbles like Lord Peter. It's incongruous!

    But at least I liked The Cuckoo Song!

  3. I do like Farewell, My Lovely, by the way, but I have to admit it's got some issues on race matters.

    The other thing that bugged me in Bar was when the two characters have the discussion on whether Decima is suited to marry above her station or should limit herself to the of-her-own-class publican's son (a leftist, he's referred to by one characters as "a politically-minded pot boy").

  4. Ngaio Marsh never held my interest. Her theater mysteries were the only ones I read when I was a teen and I don't remember a thing about them now. I've never gone back to any of her books. But I'll re-read Christe, Carr and Queen at the drop of a hat.

    Rebecca's review was pretty damn funny. But I don't think much of someone who can't even get the correct name of the movie she is going to watch. Is it The Big SLEEP or The LONG Goodbye she's going to watch? Does it matter? To quote Rebecca: "meh"

    1. @John - Ha ha, OP of review here. Thank you for catching my typo of yore! For the record, it was The Big Sleep. (This is where I admit to having more brain cells devoted to Star Trek homages to detective fiction than to the source material...)