Sunday, April 1, 2018

Out of Africa I : Black as He's Painted (1974), by Ngaio Marsh, Part 1

A better post for dealing with death and resurrection is coming on Tuesday, but for now I hope you enjoy this one, the first of a Passing Tramp series. (I hope.)

Detective novelist and theater director Edith Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) left her native country of New Zealand for the first time at the age of 33, when in 1928 she traveled to England at the invitation of the Rhodes, a family of superior social station in Marsh's home city of Christchurch, from where they had recently departed.  (The Rhodes, on whom Marsh would base the title family in Surfeit of Lampreys, had returned to England, where they settled for a time at a Georgian manor house in Buckinghamshire, giving Marsh a taste, much relished by her, of English country house society.)  Until near the end of her life the nearly indefatigable author would travel back and forth between her mother country, with which she was much enamored, and her home in New Zealand, making her last trip to England in 1974-75, when she was nearly 80 years old.

On a 1961-62 trip to England, during which Marsh wrote her detective novel Hand in Glove, the author stayed at a "rented house in Montpelier Walk, in Knightsbridge, her favorite part of London," notes biographer Margaret Lewis.  Lodging with Marsh was one of her young actor proteges, a student at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, a 23-year-old fellow Christchurchian who was 43 years her junior.  (Though Marsh removed five years from her declared age, what she actually admitted to still made a great gap in years between the two.) 

Knightsbridge street, I believe, where Ngaio Marsh resided in 1961-62

To preserve the proprieties, as she imagined them, over the eighteen months during which the pair cohabited, Marsh called him her godson and he called her "Godma," a term of endearment used by a character in a late Marsh detective novel, Grave Mistake (1978).  The two got along smashingly, Marsh coaching her "godson" "to get rid of the last vestiges of his New England accent" (a lifetime bugbear for the Anglophile Ngaio) and he acting as her "squire," dining with her in the evenings and escorting her to the theater. And then there were those stay-at-home Sundays:

He could have been posing for Agatha Troy:
New Zealand professional wrestling legend
Steve Harper (1929-2015), mainstay of
the New Zealand wrestling program
"On the Mat" (1975-1984)
Not quite Shakespeare, but it'd do.
"On Sunday afternoons when they were both at home [we learn from biographer Joanna Drayton], they would watch television together.  Ngaio's favorite recreational viewing was on-the-mat wrestling.  They sat on sofas eating pieces of fruitcake topped with slices of cheese, and Ngaio would become engrossed in the action, leaning forward, leaping up and occasionally shouting directions at the screen."  Probably not your usual image of Ngaio!

Marsh adored the rented house and its quaint neighborhood, with its "street musicians and the daily cries of a knife-grinder, a flower-seller with a horse-drawn cart, and an 'any-old-rags-bones-or-bot-oools' man.  There were centuries-old echoes that reminded her of a street scene from Henry V."

In this colorful remnant of traditional England, Marsh, a cat person as you might expect, adopted a stray feline, whom she named Lucy Lockett after a character in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and an English nursery rhyme:

Lucy Lockett lost her pocket
Kitty Fisher found it
Not a penny was there in it
Only ribbon round it

This modern-day feline Lucy, who had been given Marsh by her housekeeper, a member of the Cats Protection League, had a habit, familiar to her kind, of bringing in to her home captured trophies from the outside.  On one occasion the object was a small wooden fish.

Marsh returned to reside in the neighborhood, this time in a three-room basement flat, a decade later, when she was making another visit to England in 1971.  She reported that she loved "walking down the darling little streets to my old shops," like Capri, an Italian grocery, and a "wine shop whose family greeted me as if I'd only been away for the weekend."  She was unhappy, however, with the exchange rate and the high cost of living in 70s England relative to New Zealand: "[E]verything has spiralled like crazy," she lamented.

Knightsbridge street, I believe, where Ngaio Marsh resided in 1971

Marsh would draw on these memories (well, not the whole high cost of living thing) a couple of years later in New Zealand, when she was writing her book Black as He's Painted, her 28th Roderick Alleyn detective novel, which was published in 1974, when the author was nearly 80 years old.

Elderly Golden Age mystery writers--the few of them, like Marsh, Agatha Christie and Christopher Bush, who survived and wrote into the late Sixties and the Seventies, that is--are not noted for their enlightened tolerance of the era of hippies, highs, free love and flower power, and Ngaio Marsh, a woman who very much knew what she liked and even more what she didn't, was no exception in this regard.  Happily, young people (anyone under 40, say) barely exist in Black as He's Painted

Marsh, however, does tackle, rather boldly in the circumstances, the subject of race, in the form of an African despot--or, erm, president-for-life--who just happens once to have been a great public school pal of Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, still the handsomest and downright poshest man in Scotland Yard, though he must be pushing 75 by now. (Press accounts refer to him as "Handsome Super.")

I think Marsh handles the racial aspect of the novel fairly well, despite the manifest snares it offers.  As we shall see, what real problems we find in Black as He's Painted stem more from other of the author's rather finical prejudices--of which, I've come to conclude, there was no lacking.  These prejudices do not ruin the book for me, but sadly they do undermine it.

Black as He's Painted is rather an odd sort of "detective novel," in that if I can make sense of it at all, it is a combination of cat mystery and political thriller.  There is also a fair play murder problem embedded in the story, but it is somewhat unsatisfactory, although it serves the theme of the novel, because the victim barely has any presence in, or real significance to, the story.  So there is not much of an emotional investment here.  But let's get into it, shall we?

Lucy Lockett may have lost her pocket, but she finds a fish.
The first section of the novel is a charming love story between an elderly man, Samuel Whipplestone, lately retired from the foreign service, and a delightful stray cat named, as mentioned above, Lucy Lockett. 

At loose ends in retirement, Mr. Whipplestone has left his depressing flat for new lodgings in a charming house in a charming neighborhood, the Capricorns, prompting Marsh tetchily to pronounce:

In London there are still, however precarious their state, many little streets of the character of the Capricorns.  They are upper-middle-class streets and therefore, Mr. Whipplestone had been given to understand, despicable.

This is a defensive refrain British (and white Commonwealth) Golden Age crime writers had played since the end of the Second World War, when the Labor party came to power and began enacting, to the ire of a great many of these writers, an ambitious agenda of government prompted economic redistribution. 

Soon Mr. Whipplestone is snugly ensconced in the Capricorns with his beloved Agatha Troy landscape over the mantel, a sure indicator of his refined good taste; the winsome stray cat, now named Lucy Lockett, that he rescued from young cocky Cockey vulgarians ("'One of 'er nine lives gawn for a burton,' said the youth.  He and his friends guffawed themselves into the garage."); and his most gratifyingly deferential servants, the Chubbs.  ("You won't find anything scamped or overlooked, sir....We give satisfaction, sir, in all quarters, really we do.")

Here let me digress a bit, concerning this Chubbish matter.  Despite the fact that it's ostensibly around 1973, no one in the book refers to Mr. Chubb as, well, "Mr." despite the fact that they do call Mrs. Chubb "Mrs."  Not only does Mr. Whipplestone (who is always called "Mr."--even I'm doing it) omit the "Mr."when referring to Chubb, so does Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, during the course of his murder investigation, not to mention the author herself.  (There he is, in the cast of characters: "Chubb.") 

And Chubb himself refers to Alleyn as "sir," even though he does not even work for Alleyn.  This does not seem like 70s egalitarianism to me, certainly not the 70s I knew in the US, but the fact that the Chubbs seem such throwbacks to Downton Abbey days no doubt is why Mr. Whipplestone deems them such rare and precious treasures; and he always refers to them, rather patronizingly, as "my Chubbs" and "my poor Chubbs," when the servant couple is drawn into the murderous affair detailed in the novel.

Now for a longer digression.  (I promise next post we will get into the heart of the novel!) 

Mr. Whipplestone so adores his new neighborhood, where time evidently has mostly stood still, that he is truly mortified to learn that he has for neighbors a brother and sister of appearances that are quite distasteful to him.  Of the brother and sister, Kenneth and Xenoclea Sanskrit, Marsh writes:

....he saw they were truly awful.

It wasn't that they were lard-fat, both of them, so fat that they might have sat to each other as models for their wares [they make pottery pigs], or that they were outrageously got up.  No clothes, it might be argued in these permissive days, could achieve outrageousness.  It wasn't that the man wore a bracelet and an anklet and a necklace and earrings or that what hair he had fell like pond-weed from an embroidered head-band.  It wasn't even that she (fifty if a day, thought Mr. Whipplestone) wore vast black leather hotpants, a black fringed tunic and black boots.  Monstrous though these grotesqueries undoubtedly were, they were as nothing compared with the eyes and mouths of the Sankrits which were, Mr. Whipplestone now saw with something like panic, equally heavily made-up.

"They shouldn't be here," he thought, confusedly protecting the normality of the Capricorns.  "People like that.  They ought to be in Chelsea.  Or somewhere."

This last may be a bit of a joke on Marsh's part, as Roderick Alleyn and his wife, the noted artist Agatha Troy, actually live in Chelsea, traditionally a a home to writers and even a detective novelist or two.  However, by 1974 Chelsea, particularly King's Road, which ran through the neighborhood, had become a Mecca of modish psychedelia, prompted by the opening, in 1966, of the famed prog boutique, Granny Takes a Trip.  Perhaps the Sanskrit's shopped there sometimes, however inadvisably.

Chelsea was also known for being queer-friendly and it was the longtime home of the Gateways Club, a lesbian nightclub that opened in King's Road in 1931, the year Ngaio Marsh wrote her first detective novel in yet another three-room basement flat in London.

At the blue door: entrance to the Gateways Club
Obviously Mr. Whipplestone, bless his heart, would not be in the vanguard either of fashion or transgender rights today.  But the venom of the reaction is striking to me in that it is not really moral (Marsh has always struck me as the least preoccupied of the Crime Queens with moral issues), but rather aesthetic.

Doesn't the reaction seem exaggerated and the language extravagant?  Through Mr. Whipplestone the author expresses her horror simply at how these people look-- culminating in the appalling, unspeakable fact that the man wears makeup! 

Fear of androgyny seems to be a running theme in Marsh's writing.  Yet had Marsh--who spent a substantial part of her life in theater, Shakespeare no less--really never before seen a man in makeup or, heaven forbid, drag? (Apparently Mr. Whipplestone hadn't, at least to his knowledge.) Did she find it so appalling and unspeakable then?

Was the author compensating for the face that she herself was frequently described by friends and contemporaries as "mannish in appearance":

tall, five foot ten inches...flat-chested, rather gawky...dressed usually in beautifully-cut slacks, large feet with shoes like canal boats, a deep voice--yet intensely feminine withal.

See and hear Ngaio Marsh for yourself by following this link.

Ngaio Marsh (second from the upper right) with members of the Rhode and Plunkett families

Alleyn, who shares Mr. Whipplestone's distaste for the awful Sanskrits, sums up Kenneth Sanskrit from a police report as follows, taking time to mention every thing that horrified Mr. Whipplestone:

Height 5 foot 10.  Weight: 16 stone 4.  Very obese.  Blond.  Long hair.  Dress: eccentric: Ultra modern.  Bracelets.  Anklet.  Necklace.  Wears make-up.  Probably homosexual.  One ring through pierced lobe.  Origin: uncertain.  Said to be Dutch. 

Honestly, I was expecting the poor man's origin to be from the very pits of Hell!  And what a remarkably thorough report, it lists the man's every fashion accessory.  (What, no toe ring?)  And you have to love the "Probably homosexual."  Ya think, darling Rory?  Ngaio wasn't exactly being subtle here, but then she never was with her gay characters.  Also, if I am right, Sankrit's weight was about 228 pounds?  If that is Marsh's conception of unspeakably, grotesquely "lard-fat" for a 5'10 man, she had singularly, dare I say appallingly, stringent standards for weight. 

Noted theater director reacting with disdain to strange-looking man in makeup?

But, oh, does Ngaio go on, when writing about this pair, about their weight, as well as other things:

a grotesquely fat man

a baleful fat lady

They were both fat

The man was as outlandish as ever.  Even fatter.  And painted.  And, as Mr. Whipplestone turned quickly away, what had he seen, dangling from that unspeakable neck?

the man's shirt...was unspeakable, being heavily frilled and lacy....He wore many rings on his dimpled fingers.  His fair hair was cut in a fringe and concealed his ears....The sister, vast in green, fringed satin, also wore her hair, which was purple, in a fringe and side-pieces.  These in effect squared her enormous face.  They moved slowly like two huge vessels, shoved from behind by tugs.

presumably gay, but certainly not fat,
even by Marshy standards, one presume
Chelsea Arts New Years Eve Ball, 1947
Round that ghastly fellow Sanskrit's fat neck.

those frankly appalling Sanskrits....

an astonishing deep voice inside Miss Sanskrit [as deep as the author's?--TPT]

her fat, pale hands

her embedded eyes beneath the preposterous beet-root-colored fringe

She's undoubtedly rattled, as far as one can think of blubber rattling

"Sanskirt," Alleyn repeated.  "They are enormously fat."

the elephantine bulk of Sanskrit

the great bladder-like face

walking lightly as fat people so often do

the huge bulk of Sanskrit

rather like a walking tent with his buoyant fat man's stride

a faint high-pitched voice

As the enormous tent figure, grotesque in the uncertain darkness, flounced towards them

this horrid fat man [this one from Handsome Alleyn]

smelling of hot, wet fat

his vast rump

Ngaio Marsh was not a member of any fringe groups
except perhaps the International League of Fat-Shamers
And it gets worse!  When the Sanskirts are killed--the sister symbolically makes pottery pigs and she and her brother have their heads stove in with a large one--the police surgeon snidely asks "if they would provide him with bulldozers" to remove the bodies and later adds, "You'll send these monstrosities along then, Rory?"

I find this fat obsessing and shaming, to use the author's terms, appalling (if not unspeakable).  There are genuinely unspeakable things in this world, like genocide and child abuse, but extreme girth, if extreme girth it even be, is not one of them.

Now it's true that the Sanskrits are supposed to be genuinely horrible people (the brother was a drug dealer apparently and the couple is said to have abused the cat Lucy Lockett), but since Marsh has trouble conveying real moral horror in her books (so vulgar, darling), what we really are left with is that these two "monstrosities" are horrible people because they're fat.  They might as well be Shakespeare's hunchbacked Richard III, doubled.

And, oh yes, she deplorably wears hippy clothes at, shall we say, a certain age and he's an effeminate gay.  A fat effeminate gay.  Indeed, from all this so far one could almost see the novel being titled Fat as He's Painted.  Not that Troy would want to paint a fat person, I assume.

Troy does want to paint the African dictator, however, very much.  Very much indeed.

If you can past all this classism and fat-shaming, there are good points to the novel and I will get to them, I promise, in my next post.  Marsh in my view is far more sympathetic writing about racial minorities than she is the overweight, the queer and the fringed.


  1. Enjoyed this very much - am looking forward to part II.

  2. Fascinating post, as ever, Curtis. I think I'll skip this one, not being a massive Marsh fan in the first place...

    1. The case for the novel comes next! It's actually one of her better later ones, I think, though the fat obsessing started getting me down.

  3. Elderly Golden Age mystery writers--the few of them, like Marsh, Agatha Christie and Christopher Bush, who survived and wrote into the late Sixties and the Seventies, that is--are not noted for their enlightened tolerance of the era of hippies, highs, free love and flower power, and Ngaio Marsh, a woman who very much knew what she liked and even more what she didn't, was no exception in this regard.

    Ain't it the truth? Reading Christie's The Third Girl I found the murder mystery almost overshadowed by the generation gap between the young adults and Poirot/Ariadne Oliver/most of the mature authority figures/presumably Christie herself.

    Rex Stout might be an exception. Issues with hippie styles and morality he tends to ignore. By that time it was Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover who were really driving his blood pressure up.

    1. Yes, that one feels definitely relevant to the times. I think in Please Pass the Guilt he dealt some with sexual liberation, but I've not yet read that one. I have a soft spot for Third Girl, which I posted about a while back, but it's far from Christie's best. Poirot just doesn't really fit in in the late 60s.

  4. That was thorough! Really enjoyed reading your overview, and look forward to more...

    1. Thanks! The next post should be about as long, but more positive, when I get to what I actually liked about the book. But the whole weight thing kind of cheesed me off (as someone who weighed over 220 pounds but lost forty pounds I might add, I don't believe I ever looked like how she describes Kenneth Sanskrit, lol). Ngaio is a good writer, but oh! she can be so catty and snooty sometimes.