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Archive for the ‘Marsh, Ngaio’ Category

Sometimes a book cover can really draw you in. I know my Ngaio Marsh–when I read something by her, I expect the urbane gentleman-policeman Roderick Alleyn, his artist wife Troy (if I’m lucky) and a bit of insight into how she works, Fox, his assistant, maybe an excellently drawn setting in the theatre world (nobody does that quite like Marsh), maybe a dab of New Zealand, maybe an English country house, and, of course, a murder or two for Alleyn to solve … it’s a set of fairly predictable elements. Which is why this cover was so dramatic– “the cat with eyne of burning coal” staring out… it’s almost hypnotic. And it hints at a theme or a setting not typically Ngaio. I grabbed the book.

And it did deliver on the cover’s promise.  An assassination takes place at a party at the Ng’ombwanan embassy in London—the lights go out, a woman screams, and when they come up again, our host, the Ambassador from Ng’ombwana (a fictional African country), is found dead in the middle of the Ng’ombwanan president’s pavilion, with a ceremonial spear sticking out of his back. It’s a complex investigation for Alleyn, not least because the president, his old school chum, also known as “the Boomer”, is determined to get the wheels of Ng’ombwanan justice moving, alongside and in fact overtaking those of British justice. How could a policeman tell a head of state that a tribal court would be a nuisance?

But ultimately, neither Alleyn nor the Boomer get to the first major clue. This is where one — oh, actually, two — of Marsh’s most endearing creations come in. Around the corner from the embassy lives the retired diplomat, Mr. Whipplestone, and his little stray cat, Lucy Lockett. And it’s Lucy who really kickstarts this investigation…

Mind you, it’s  not Marsh’s most finely plotted or characterized novel–it actually feels a bit slapdash. But both Mr. Whipplestone and Lucy are irresistable. Marsh lets us watch as Mr. Whipplestone, recently retired, strolls into a street, falls in love with a cottage, and impulsively decides to buy it; and then, again, as he repeatedly encounters a half-starved stray cat and decides that she will share his new home. It’s very cosy, almost twee, and yet, rather touching–it takes a real love of cats to write about human and animal bonding the way Marsh has here, even if she’s done it with a sense of amusement.

I loved, also, the Boomer. Oh, how he booms. He’s a madly memorable character, and Marsh does him the honour of having her artistic genius Troy wish to paint him and get the chance to, because the Boomer also wishes to be painted by her. And yet, he’s not entirely benign; old school chum he may be, but there’s a sense of enormous authority that he carries on every page. He both is and isn’t a caricature; he slips out of the African leader in the west mould in subtle ways, and you can see him as a human being as well as a symbol, albeit a human being rather larger than life.

Marsh, unlike Agatha Christie, is not overtly racist. Where Christie allowed favoured characters to subscribe to and express negative stereotypes about other races and nationalities, Marsh is actually very careful to make her Alleyn and Troy comfortable with the black characters. They acknowledge difference, they’re to some extent fascinated by it, but they’re able to look beyond it too. Racism is, in fact, a major plot point. It’s a different sort of tension in this Marsh—and an exciting one. This is, ultimately, uneven and Marsh doesn’t quite succeed in tying everything together neatly. But, if nothing else, I now do want a cat.

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