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.


  1. "Charm and sweet reason were the wastewords of his ween". Ween means to be of the opinion. He is saying that the Assistant Commissioner wants results, not mere words. In more modern vernacular, "Talk is cheap".

  2. Christie writing in the 1950s was working in a very different world from Marsh writing in the 1970s. Both reflected conventional attitudes of their times in their novels.

    1. I agree. The black students in Christie's hostel are a good try, I think. Elizabeth is a character: a bit "on her dignity", but a serious student. Akibombo is rather simple-minded and rather a figure of fun, while being sympathetic and friendly. I always want to give Christie the benefit of the doubt.

    2. I don't recall being offended by them as Robert Barnard was, Christie most often didn't write deeply developed characters if any race, but I still can't see Christie taking on modern African presidents. Outside of A Caribbean Mystery did she do other black characters, I can't recall.

  3. Alleyn says it's a quote, but the mighty Google doesn't say where it's from, either. "Charm and sweet reason" is a cliché - perhaps originally a quote. Sounds quite Shakespearean. But "the wastewords of his ween"? Sounds like a half-remembered mashup.

    1. I think Alleyn is just messing with people's minds. Poor Fox!

  4. I love this novel, but agree about the fat-shaming. One thing, though. Who dunnit?

    1. I thought the mystery element worked on the book's terms but certainly wasn't the traditional whodunit.

    2. I think I liked this better than her other books from after 1970, with the possible exception of Photo Finish, which I should reread.

    3. But the fat-shaming, ye gods. Oh, well, that was the other post!

  5. To be fair, Allen doesn’t pretend to know the meaning of the obscure phrase he uses - it’s actually a misquotation from Sir Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen.

    The full quote from Marsh’s book is as follows:

    “What did he say, exactly?” asked Mr. Fox. He referred to their Assistant Commissioner.

    “Oh, you know!” said Alleyn. “Charm and sweet reason were the wastewords of his ween.”

    “What’s a ween, Mr. Alleyn?”

    “I’ve not the remotest idea. It’s a quotation. And don’t ask me from where.”

    “I only wondered,” said Mr. Fox mildly.

    “I don’t even know,” Alleyn continued moodily, “how it’s spelt. Or what it means, if it comes to that.”

    “If it’s Scotch it’ll be with an h, won’t it? Meaning: ‘few.’ Wheen.”

    “Which doesn’t make sense. Or does it? Perhaps it should be ‘weird,’ but that’s something one drees. Now you’re upsetting me, Br’er Fox.”

  6. I thought maybe it came from Monty Python!