Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Tuesday Night Bloggers The Great Detectives 1: Roderick Alleyn Murderset: Off with His Head (1956), by Ngaio Marsh

If we keep adding Great Sleuths
this old tug may capsize--and then
who will solve our murders for us?
Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, Inspector Alan Grant: they all appear as entries in a new book edited by Eric Sandberg, 100 Greatest Literary Detectives.  The perennially interesting subject addressed in this book has resulted in the reconvening of the world-renowned Tuesday Night Bloggers, who now ask the question: who else should make the cut as Great (nay, the Greatest) Detectives?

Also included in the Sandberg book are Chief Inspector Wexford, Inspector Morse, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and Detective Superintendent Andrew Dalziel.  From the classic era we further have Nigel Strangeways, Philip Trent, Nero Wolfe, Chief Inspector Maigret, Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, Ellery Queen, Father Brown, Doctor Fell and Gervase Fen.  And, of course, there are icons Sherlock Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin.

Right off I can think of a few obvious omissions here: Charlie Chan, Philo Vance, Perry Mason, Reggie Fortune, Max Carrados, Miss Silver, Carolus Deene, for example, and four British policemen: Michael Innes's Sir John Appleby, Leo Bruce's Sergeant Beef and Chief Superintendents Roderick Alleyn, created by Ngaio Marsh, and Peter Diamond, created by Peter Lovesey.  Some of these I will be talking about this month. 

I start with that handsome posh devil, Roderick Alleyn, whom one mainstream author and mystery fan, Sheila Kaye-Smith, disparagingly termed one of the "glamour boy" detectives.  Opinion has divided about "Handsome Alleyn" for decades, but over those years he has maintained a large following of dedicated admirers.

Alleyn's creator, Ngaio Marsh, usually is included by rote in the Hall of Greatness with her sister Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham.  Yet in the Sandberg book her place, and her detective's, in the Crime Queen pantheon is taken by Josephine Tey and Tey's Alan Grant.  Was Alleyn unjustly exiled?

Marsh in the 1950s, probably
at the height of her critical reputation
Just as Rex Stout is credited with fusing the classical and hard-boiled traditions in the US with the teaming of master armchair brain Nero Wolfe and his wisecracking assistant Archie Godwin, Ngaio Marsh has been credited with melding the gentleman detective and policeman strains in British detective fiction in the attractive form of posher-than-thou Roderick Alleyn.  I have seen Marsh even credited with creating the first important Golden Age policeman detective.

While this latter claim is errant, certainly the first one is true.  If this fact alone does not make Alleyn one of the greatest literary detectives, his tremendous worldwide popularity over many decades should be considered as a major point in his favor.  The simple truth is that since around 1940, Alleyn's name, along with Campion's and Wimsey's, has been synonymous with British Golden Age detection. 

This dazzling trio of polished and sophisticated tecs constituted the Great Trimvirate, if you will, of British romantic gentleman sleuths from the Golden Age and I think all three of them should be considered "Greatest Literary Detectives."

"Romantic" is important here, else we could include a whole slew of additional gents, such as the aforementioned Reggie Fortune, whose greatest passions are cream puffs and his cat.  But no reader, presumably, ever indulged in fond and loving dreams about Reggie Fortune.  (I am always amazed to recall that he has a wife, one who is rather fond of him too.)  By bringing love and romance into the lives of their seluths, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh helped expand the audience for detective fiction, removing it strictly from the dry ratiocinative plain and adding the stormy dramatic emotions associated with the mainstream novel. 

Some liked this, some did not.  Naysayer Raymond Chandler complained that Troy Allen was an utterly "silly" character, apparently because she was a great woman painter.  I think what Chandler may have been getting at is that he felt Troy, like Sayers's Harriet Vane and Nicholas Blake's Georgia Strangeways, whom he specifically referenced as well, was an overliy idealized "Mary Sue" character.  As opposed to Philip Marlowe, of course!

Wimsey, Allingham and Alleyn all fell in love in the course of their mysteries and married clever and accomplished women.  Here Wimsey set the mold, to be sure, but Marsh very much imitated it, and rather ably too.  The first Marsh mysteries remind me very much of Christies, and inferior ones at that.  But with Artists in Crime and Death in a White Tie, Marsh introduced Alleyn's love interest, painter Agatha Troy, and the quality of her books jumped markedly. 

Marsh's greatest skill as a writer lies with her depiction of social manners rather than with her mystery plotting per se.  The latter, while competent, seldom reaches the higher flights of creative imagination.  Her puzzle plots often are more workmanlike than inspired, contrasting with sublime tricksters like Christie and John Dickson Carr.  Not for Marsh the cunningly hidden motive or the baffling impossible crime, such ingenuity demonstrably inspiring neither her nor her detective:

"Don't," said Alleyn wearily, "let us have any nonsense about sealed rooms."                                                                                                                   --"I Can Find My Way Out"

So to writers who prefer extreme puzzlement, Marsh can be a disappointment.  Sayers, whatever you think of Lord Peter, like John Rhode often has some fiendishly clever "howdunit" aspects to her mystery plots.  Similarly Margery Allingham can be immensely fertile in her criminal imagination.  (Further, I would argue, she is the best pure writer of the group.)

However, Marsh did offer fans of miracle problems an "impossible" situation on rare occasions.  One of these, I understand, is in her recently completed (by author Stella Duffy) Money in the Morgue.  Another is found in her 1956 detective novel Off with His Head (Death of a Fool in the US), where a man is decapitated on stage during the performance of an ancient pagan fertility rite, the South Mardian Sword Dance.  How this was done is, well, a mystery!

Handsworth Sword Dancers Sheffield, England
Sure it's a half-century before the book is set, but who would know?

This situation plays to Marsh's proven capacity as an adept director of theatrical productions, particularly Shakespearean plays, which often involved fleet movements of actors wielding swords.  Marsh, in short, had to know first and foremost how to move people around on a stage.  Indeed, her first five detective novels, as I recollect, all include restagings of the murders in various theaters of death (a country house, a stage, a hospital, a church, a stage again), with Alleyn directing his cast of suspects, if you will, hoping to catch one out in crime.  This quickly got rather redundant, and thankfully Marsh stopped doing it so much, but in Off with His Head, there's more sense to it, because the "how" is very much the thing and the setting is, literally, a stage.

Besides its miracle problem, Off with His Head offers fans of  classic English mystery what many of them like best in detective fiction: a very, very "English" setting.  Here we have a snowbound village, a ruined castle, a hideous Victorian country house, a pub and a smithy, which are variously peopled by gentry, rustics, a fetching barmaid, a village "natural," young lovers of different classes (Oh, heavens!), a rector, a doctor and a gas station owner, late of the RAF, named Simon "Simmy-Dick" Begg.  If a character is named "Simmy-Dick," you know it must be a British mystery.

The speech of all the characters, including an intrusive visiting German-born folklorist in her late 50s, one Mrs. Bunz (not Buns please!), is rendered in scrupulously observed dialect.  This is the sort of setting lovers of classic English mystery tend really to love and haters of English mystery tend really to hate.  What seems charmingly "real" olde England to some seems insufferably synthetic to others.

"[F]aked-up English country people," is how scold Edmund Wilson disparagingly referred to Marsh's provincial characters (specifically referencing her village novel Overture to Death).  Even one character in Off with His Head pronounces the whole milieu "Mummerset," employing the facetious term for the heavy imitation West Country accents used in English drama to signify bucolic rusticism.

Behold a pale rider! His steed is "Crack."
From her earliest days as a detective fiction writer, Marsh, a New Zealand native, was fascinated with the traditional English class system.  Even her biographers admit she idealized it, though they argue that over time she came to be more skeptical of it. Her classic English country house and village mysteries, extending over more than four decades, are A Man Lay Dead, *Overture to Death, *Death at the Bar, *Death and the Dancing Footman, *Final Curtain, *Scales of Justice, *Off with His Head, Dead Water, Tied Up in Tinsel and Grave Mistake, which amount to about a-third of her total output (the starred titles major efforts). 

I mentioned in my last post about Marsh, concerning her late mystery Black as He's Painted, that she liked places in England where in her eyes time stood gratifyingly still, in this case a street in London that reminded her of Shakespeare's Henry V.

I think in her own life Marsh was like a lot of Anglophile American mystery lovers who want England to be all tea and crumpets and forever quaint and cozy. I like to read about this land myself sometimes!  Fictional England in this reading becomes a kind of mental refuge from problems of dislocated modern life, a place where we can travel in our minds where everyone has the comfort of having a sure and certain place in society. 

South Mardian in Off with His Head is such a place to a great extent (rather unbelievably one could argue)--but things are changing even there.  The only representatives of the gentry are Dame Alice Mardian, 94-year-old chatelaine of Mardian Castle; her unmarried great-niece, Dulcie Mardian, a victim of too much gentry inbreeding (hey, this is what the characters say) who banged her head after falling off a horse at a hunt and has never been quite right since; her great-nephew by marriage, Reverend Mr. Samuel Stayne; and the reverend's son, Ralph, a lawyer in town. 

Obviously Dulcie is a genetic dead-ender.  (How cruel Marsh could be to "spinsters"--though she was one herself--was this more deflection on her part?)  Thus all hopes for the future rest with Ralph, who has recently thrown over the barmaid at the Green Man, Trixie Plowman, for captivating Camilla Campion, who represents an almost absurdly unlikely example of cross class breeding.

The Village Blacksmith
by Thomas Hoveden
Camilla is the granddaughter of village blacksmith William Andersen (the Guiser), whoo--along with his five strapping sons (including a set of twins and the youngest, Ernie, a "natural"), Ralph Stayne and RAF veteran and service station operator Simon Begg--every year performs the ritual Sword Dance on the grounds of the Mardian's ruined castle. 

William Andersen had one daughter, Bess, who years ago ran off with the baronet Camillo Campion (an authority on Italian primitives, don't you know), after he caught sight of the fair maid while getting his car fixed at the Andersen's smithy. Their daughter, Camilla, now a rather affected but oh! so fetching drama student, has fallen for Ralph Stayne and he for her, but, as in Overture to Death and Death at the Bar, there is grave concern about mixing up the classes. 

Even Camilla, who talks about "her gentry side" and "her rustic side" (which seems ridiculous to me, because she was never even reared in the country, as a rustic or otherwise; but then she is talking about the dubious science of ancestral inheritance and what-not), sees this as an important issue, especially after her grandfather somehow gets decapitated at the Sword Dance, where for decades he has literally played the Fool:

There'll be the most ghastly publicity, won't there? [Camilla is the type of person who uses the word ghastly a lot-TPT.]  What about that?  What sort of fiancee am I going to be to a rising young country solicitor?  Can you see the headlines?  "History Repeats Itself!" "Mother Ran Away from Smithy to Marry Baronet!"  "Grand-daughter of Murdered Blacksmith Weds Peer's Grandson"!  "Fertility Rite Leads to Engagement"! 

Camilla is 18 and it's supposed to be, I surmise, 1955, a year after Kingsley Amis published his iconoclastic novel Lucky Jim.  Modern readers may be disappointed to learn that Camilla is considering abandoning her career so soon--before it has even started--to marry and they may doubt that she really would be so desperately sensitive to what the newspapers might say about her marriage.  But this is the dramatic conflict which Marsh gives us, so you have to take it or leave it as you please.  Personally I concentrated on the milieu and the mystery. I have never been that taken with Marsh's guileless yet so very pleasantly posh young lovers, who appear in book after book after book.  (There is a similar couple who pops up as late as 1978, in Grave Mistake, except there as I recollect the nice boy is the son of a dazzlingly rich Greek, a sign of social progress in Marsh's eyes I gather.) 

In Christie's works there is always a possibility that one of the "nice" young lovers could turn out to be a conniving and rather fiendish murderer indeed, but Marsh is more like Patricia Wentworth in this regard, being a great believer in not only the passion but the purity of young love, at least in her writing (and Shakespeare's). Poor middle-aged and elderly spinsters often get rather a hard time of it in her books, as if they must be mocked for their failure to marry. (Here it's Dulcie Mardian and folklorist Mrs. Bunz--though the latter, actually a widow, makes rather an amusing satirical portrait of academic enthusiasm.)

Whether you see Marsh's milieu in Off with His Head as real or contrived, I think it's artfully done.  The setting is memorable, and the dance stuff intriguing.  Marsh by name credits two books, Douglas Kennesdy's English Dances and Violet Alford's Introduction to English Folklore, for their help, which at least indicates more research on Marsh's part than Sayers's bell-ringing pamphlet, inspiration for the latter's highly-regarded The Nine Tailors.

The problem afforded readers is a fair play one, and on rereading I can see how meticulous Marsh was with her clueing.  For a story depending so much on stage movements, a plan of the stage and the players really should have been provided, however.

As for Roderick Alleyn, Great Detective, he is his usual charming and rather precious and all-too-pleased-with-himself self. 

He still gratingly calls Sergeant Fox, his long-suffering yet fortunately phlegmatic assistant, "Foxkin" (urk!) and, in my favorite Alleynism in the novel, the handsome Super indicates that he is quotingly familiar with that supreme camp anthem, an innuendo-laden hit made famous by the inimitable Beatrice Lillie (or, as Alleyn no doubt would have known her, Lady Peel) during the Golden Age of detective fiction (arguably rather akin to Tiny Tim's Tiptoe Through the Tulips) called There Are Fairies at the Bottom of Our Garden:

"I take it," said Mr. Fox during a pause, "that we don't believe in fairies. He looked mildly around the table.
"Not at the bottom of this garden, anyway," Alleyn muttered.
"My dad did, then," Ernie shouted.
[He's the natural, naturally.]
"Did what?"  Allen asked patiently.
"Believe in fairies."
Fox sighed heavily and made a note.

I don't know about my Foxkin, but at this point I have learned to love Handsome Alleyn's priceless preciosity  and wouldn't have the dear man any other way.  Rory can visit the bottom of my garden any time he wants!  Oh dear, did I just type that?!

"You wouldn't think they'd dare/To come merrymaking there/Well--they doooo!" 

To be sure, there may not be actual fairies in this particular Marsh garden, but Off with His Head still is chock full of queer and colorful characters mysteriously and sometimes murderously gamboling in the wintry gloam.  Whether or not the novel really speaks accurately to evolving social conditions in Fifties Britain, it makes an enjoyable mystery read--and that is enough for most of us, I expect.


  1. I always imagined it was wrirren in the 30s - it wouldn’t pass as a mainstream post-war novel for sure. It’s still a great mystery - she fooled me completely, and I liked it.

    1. Yes, I think that works best! Except for the one character being RAF in WW2, it really works to do it your way.

      I enjoyed rereading it, and enjoyed it the first time. I happen to like my quaint and cozy corners of England as much as the next fan.

  2. Great overview, Curt, and I am with you on most of that. I actually think I would find Alleyn more bearable if Marsh wasn't so in love with him (muddled though that may sound). She has every possible woman having a soft spot for him, and it is plain annoying.
    I read Off With His Head when I was at school, and remember quite a few things about it - though not the basic plot points. I am slowly working my way through the oeuvre, so will get to it soon, then come back and re-read your very intriguing review.

    1. I’ve decided to give up and love him too! Looking for Alleynisms has become a source of fun for me now. And, in all seriousness, she did write some of my favorite British mysteries.

  3. Replies
    1. That's Black As He's Painted? He is pleasingly normal.;)

  4. I have read a lot of Inspector Alleyn books in my life, and generally enjoyed them, but I am still on the fence about that detective. But I certainly think he should be on a list of 100 Great Detectives. On the other hand, I know little about the book and its criteria, and we will never agree wholeheartedly on any list. Regardless, very nice overview of this detective and the author.

    1. Thanks so much. I get irritated by Alleyn sometimes but I still think he's a Great Detective. As is Philo Vance and some others who bug the heck outta me!

  5. I thought I had read every Ngaio Marsh mystery, but turns out I don't remember this one at all. Could I have missed it? I'll have to track down a copy. Thanks for a great review. P.S. I love Alleyn, he can never be too 'posh' for me.

    1. I have a love-hate relationship with Rory, Yvette! I think you would like this one, I did.

  6. I just finished re-reading this book, and then discovered your post. I've enjoyed Alleyn & Co for several decades, altho I agree that he seems affected at times. Patrick Malahide played him as less "precious," I think. Regarding Troy & Harriet, to me they seem more realistic than their menfolk! As someone noted previously, Alleyn sometimes comes across as the author's idea of the perfect man, a sort of male Mary Sue (as does the mature Wimsey). Regarding Chandler's snide remarks--the gender that gave us James Bond shouldn't point fingers at female authors' "wish fulfillment"! I recall that Marsh herself was critical of the Wimsey/Vane romance, saying it made Wimsey look foolish. I don't see it myself--I love the Alleyns, but their courtship wasn't any more realistic, and in fact I found Harriet's skittishness towards marriage more believable than Troy's objections to Alleyn.

    1. You know, I think I agree about Malahide, but I think what did in the series was that the women audience was just not attracted to him as a leading man, though he is a very good actor. But he frequently looks quite peeved! Which is why he makes good villains too.

      Agree about Chandler, he has no business making Mary sue accusations, lol.