Friday, August 22, 2008

Ngaio Marsh's Death in a White Tie

Marsh, Ngaio. Death in a White Tie. New York: Jove Books, 1980.

(I read this book for the detective book club. The edition I read is not the one pictured, and I like the cover on my edition better -- a hand holding a bloody cigarette case -- but I couldn't find a picture of it to download, so this one will have to do.)

When I first started reading this book, and for the first full-quarter or so of it, I felt as if I were settling down to watch some BBC production, circa mid-1970s, about the life of wealthy Englishmen between the wars. It was fun. I was enjoying meeting the characters, although, as with those sorts of productions, having a little bit of trouble keeping them all straight. I figured the “important” ones, however, would eventually make themselves known, as they always do.

I had almost completely forgotten that this was supposed to be a mystery, except that there did happen to be that likeable Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn (and his even more likeable mother) who was looking into some sort of blackmail scheme. I was just enjoying all the period detail. But then, Marsh went and killed off one of the most interesting characters. I’m not one who reads a whole lot of mysteries, but isn’t that sort of against the law in the genre? Aren’t the sorts of characters who get killed off supposed to be the whiny ones or the pompous ones or complete strangers to the reader who just sort of happen into the wrong building/street/artist’s opening at the wrong time? My reaction was: how unfair!

In fairness, however, the back cover copy had told me plain as day that this, my favorite character (who was also seemingly the favorite of everyone involved in the London “Season” that year), was going to wind up dead. However, I’d only read that copy once (when I’d gotten the book), and the name hadn’t quite sunk in (as characters’ names don’t tend to do when I read copy, unless it’s, you know, “David Copperfield” or something), so when I happened to glance at the cover copy again when pulling the book out of my bag at the airport on my way up to office headquarters and noticed a name that was now very familiar to me, I felt I didn’t really want to read any more if Lord Gospell “was found dead under strange circumstances.”

I guess what kept me going, though (well, besides the fact that I’m reading this for the detective book club and didn’t want to let down my fellow members) was that description. “Strange circumstances,” huh? Clever copywriter: I definitely wanted to know what those could be. I had to find out. Also, I really wanted to know why anyone would want to kill Lord Gospell. I wasn’t disappointed when it came to the “strange circumstances,” as, that, they certainly were, complete with what seemed to be good old clever disguises and mistaken identities. We were also treated to some very strange, if also very predictable characters (think nephew up to his neck in debt begging his uncle for money, odd Lord with whom the nephew has been living, gorgeous American actress married to a much-older old bore, etc. – I suppose this still could have been a BBC production, huh?), all of whom seemed to be somehow tied up in the original blackmailing scheme.

However, I have to admit that about halfway through the book, I just plain got bored. This is the first Marsh I’ve ever read, and it’s been a while since I read any Agatha Christie (when I do read her, I tend to return to my favorite Tommy and Tuppence novels). Thus, I’d forgotten how tedious those periods of nothing but the detective (without the wild antics of Lauren Henderson’s Sam Jones or Tamar Myers’s Magdelena Yoder, who are the sorts of “sleuths” with whom I tend to keep company these days) questioning all the suspects, all of whom now seem guilty as sin, no matter how innocent they may have seemed when you first met them in their parlors back on page five, can get. It’s funny, but it seems Marsh must have been in great competition with Christie (the female "cozy" rivalry to the male "hard-boiled" rivalry of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald). I discovered that we own two others of hers (Bob’s a fan), and all three of these paperbacks have this quote from The New York Times running across the front cover, “She writes better than Christie.” I can see why the comparisons were made, but I need to go back and re-read Christie to see if I really agree with that quote.

During this period of boredom, I very nearly gave up. I thought maybe I’d go in search of Margaret Millar who is now intriguing me, due to the Ross Macdonald biography I'm reading, and see if she, a woman writing around the same time, was any better. But then I thought, “no. If others are slogging their way through this [and not just any old “others,” but friends of mine], then I can certainly do the same in order really to write intelligently about it."

I’m glad I stuck with it. Eventually, Detective Alleyn starts questioning the more interesting characters, and the book picks up again. All I really needed to get me racing to the finish line was the bit about the mad, hidden Australian wife and its Jane Eyre allusion, and then there was the cigarette case. But that’s all I’m giving you, at the risk of giving too much away for those interested in reading this one.

I will, however, tell you a little more about Alleyn who may be likable, but is not the most exciting or intriguing detective I’ve run across, just very solid (or do I really want to say “stolid?” Maybe not. He has moments of seeming slightly upset that a good friend of his has died, and he does seem to be capable of falling in love) and methodical. However, I found it ironic to hear him, of all people, say this,

“Have you ever read in the crime books about the relentless detective who swears he’ll get his man if it takes him the rest of his life? That’s me, Troy, and I always thought it rather a bogus idea. It is bogus in a way, too. The real heroes of criminal investigation are Detective-Constables X, Y and Z – the men in the ranks who follow up all the dreary threads of routine without any personal feeling or interest, who swear no full round oaths, but who, nevertheless, do get their men in the end; with a bit of luck and the infinite capacity for taking pains. Detective-Constables X, Y and Z are going to be kept damned busy until this gentleman is laid by the heels. I can promise them that.” (p. 97)

The quote makes him very likeable, doesn’t it? But I failed to see that the inspector himself was anything other than these men he described. I don’t know; maybe Alleyn was oozing personal feeling and interest for a man of his time, and I just missed it, while “Detective-Constables X, Y and Z” would have seemed like the guards at Buckingham Palace in comparison, but Alleyn wasn’t exactly a classic Myers-Briggs Feeler rather than Thinker. Perhaps, as well, Alleyn’s “going to be kept damned busy” was his idea of a full round oath, but then, he truly must have only kept company with gentlemen, no? And talk about an infinite capacity for taking pains. Well, let's just chalk it all up to Alleyn's infinite capacity for projection.

So, in a nutshell: not the best mystery I’ve ever read. The verdict is still out as to whether or not I agree “she writes better than Christie.” Racist and classist? Yes, but only in the way most books of the era tend to be, and much more palatable than Beat Not the Bones, which was the last book we read for the mystery book club .


Anonymous said...

Now that's funny because I just finished reading a Ngaio Marsh called "Final Curtain" and was thinking I liked "Death in a White Tie" the best, although I haven't read it in a long time. (And yes it was made into an BBC mystery). I like Marsh and Dorothy Sayers a lot but my problem with them is, frankly they're snobs: the culprit almost always ends up being middle class--"a person not quite...". Agatha Christie isn't as "intellectual" but she's far more democratic with her murderers and sleuths. The detectives, for example, don't have to constantly deprecate their education at an ancient college at Oxford or admit reluctantly to a connection with some duke. linser

Emily Barton said...

Linser, let me guess: you were reading that at Mom and Daddy's while eating a huge brownie.

"The detectives, for example, don't have to constantly deprecate their education at an ancient college at Oxford or admit reluctantly to a connection with some duke." I love that! I ran across Marsh's "Final Curtain" in a list of her novels when I was looking up to see what else "starred" Alleyn, and my first thought was, "Wasn't that the title of Christie's last Hercule Poroit novel? I figured I'd ask you -- still the one I consider my Agatha Christie expert (as well as the one who introduced me to Tommy and Tuppence and "unsh-ed" snow. Do you remember that?).

Rebecca H. said...

I, and the group, agreed with your conclusions here -- the book does definitely get tedious with all those interviews in the middle, and it was hard to see Bunchie disappear because he was so amusing and charming. The book felt pretty bare bones -- I wanted more ideas, and when the ideas did pop up, they were odd -- like the gender stuff about women wanting men who might possibly knock them around a little bit. I did like all the references to detectives and detective fiction and the way she makes her chapter titles self-reflexive. But there just wasn't enough going on here -- it's good for some light entertainment (although probably too long), but not a whole lot else.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, Phew! Relived to hear I'm not the only one who thought it got tedious. You're right: great for a light read (it was good on the airplane), but a bit long for that. And, yes, that gender thing was really odd, wasn't it? Sorry, as always, that I missed the discussion.