Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh

published 1958








At noon Mrs Dillington-Blick took to the water and the appearance was in the nature of a star turn. She wore a sort of bathing-negligee which Aubyn Dale, who escorted her, called a ‘bewilderment of nonsense’. It was all compact of crisp cotton frills and black ribbons and under it Mrs Dillington-Blick was encased in her Jolyon Swimsuit which belonged to a group advertised as being ‘for the Queenly Woman’.


She had high-heeled thonged sandals on her feet and had to be supported down the companion-ladder by Aubyn Dale who carried her towel and sunshade. At this juncture only Jemima, Tim, Alleyn and Mr Cuddy were bathing. The others were assembled under the awning and provided an audience for Mrs Dillington-Blick. She laughed a great deal and made deprecatory moues. ‘My dears!’ she said. ‘Look at me!’





 ‘You know,’ Jemima said to Tim, ‘I really do admire her. She actually cashes in on her size. I call that brilliant.’

‘It’s fascinating,’ Tim agreed. ‘Do look! She’s standing there like a piece of baroque, waiting to be unveiled.’




observations: Blog friend Lucy Fisher chose Singing in the Shrouds  for Rich Westwood’s ‘Books of 1958’ theme over at Past Offences – Lucy’s review here, Rich’s roundup here, the Clothes in Books choice here. I had to grab and read it immediately, and what a joy it was - and the clothes could have given me a week of entries. Well, Mrs Dillington-Blick alone could have done that. She’s a quite wonderful character, with ‘the feather in her hat, her earrings, the orchids on her great bust and her furs.’ As pointed out above, she is large and makes the most of it: she is good-hearted and generous, and enjoys the effect she has on others:
Mrs Dillington-Blick, who might have been thought to be already in full flower, awarded herself a sort of bonus in effulgence. Everything about her blossomed madly. ‘Fun!’ she seemed to be saying. ‘This is what I’m really good at. We’re all going to like this.’
(This book must be unusual in using the word effulgence several times, twice about Mrs D-B. Also she is praised for enjoying 'a bit of chaff' -  not something you hear of much these days.)

Lucy suggests that Diana Dors could have played her – the book is certainly asking to be made into a TV film. It is like Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile on an ocean liner, with a similar early scene where everyone eyes one another over the first dinner, and with a splendid collection of diverse and sharply-defined characters, all travelling from England to Cape Town – the grumpy spinster, the TV show host, the pedantic schoolmaster, the Anglo-Catholic priest, the young doctor. Is one of them the serial killer called the flower murderer? The killer sings over the victims, leaving them with their necklaces broken and blossoms on their bodies – a very sinister image. The book is witty and entertaining, despite having some very unconvincing psychology and psychiatry, and some very much of-the-time (and hard to take now) views of gay characters – Marsh is trying to be open-minded, but having some problems with it.

My memory of Marsh books was that they frequently get dull in the middle with long descriptions of alibis and who was where when the lights went out. This one manages to avoid that, and I found it consistently funny and clever. There were lovely contemporary touches, including the surprise that a TV programme might not have gone out live (the star has no alibi!), though the programme itself sounded very modern, with its over-sharing of personal problems. The details of shipboard travel were fascinating, starting with the boat leaving from central London in deep fog at midnight… leaving a body in an alley nearby. You can’t fault Marsh’s creation of atmosphere.

The clothes include an uncreased white dress, a startling Spanish dress, and a young woman looking ‘enchanting in jeans and a scarlet shirt.’ The same young woman earlier wears a camel-hair coat with a studded black belt, a black zouave hat (not as nice as it sounds, in my view, unlike zouave trousers) and black scarf. The TV host wears Palm Beach trunks to the swimming pool. There are linen tropical suits for the older men. Tremendous.

I haven’t read much Ngaio Marsh since starting this blog, but feel I must now do some serious re-reading if they are all going to have clothes details like that….

The top picture is from Dovima is Divine. The bottom one, from Ladies Home Journal, was used on this blog entry

20 comments:

  1. Feel free to read my share please! I'll cover you on someone else....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds like quite a good plan in fact...

      Delete
  2. I have approach / avoidance issues with Marsh. I read half of her books a few years back, all one after the other. I must have enjoyed them. I bought all of her books, most of them at the book sale... Yet the last one I read, a couple of years ago, did not measure up. Overall it was good, even the romance, which I don't go for in mysteries, but it definitely had dull spots. Now, you have encouraged me to try again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have had similar experiences, but was very impressed with this one, and will try some more. Perhaps not too close together. But I had certainly forgotten how funny she is, and good at character-drawing.

      Delete
  3. I love Ngaio Marsh! She's usually pretty good on clothes - I seem to remember some lovely stuff on tweeds in Scales of Justice, too.... at least I think it's Scales of Justice! Never good at getting the titles straight, but I can visualise the cover of that book and pretty sure it is that one. Need to reread more....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am bad on her titles too, but I will try that one, and intend to try a few more. Though in fact, it is quite hard to find good pictures of people in tweeds - they are mentioned in books all the time, but I guess that's not what people wore in old-time photos. When I come across a good tweeds pic (M or F) I always hoard it ready for a good book...

      Delete
  4. Moira, I haven't read Ngaio Marsh ever though I have been prompted and nudged enough by several blog reviews of her books. While I like the title of this book, I'll probably start with something else by her.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You should certainly try her, Prashant, I think you might like her....

      Delete
  5. Scales of Justice is one of her best: a titled lady in vast tweed tents, and a second wife in skin-tight velvet trousers. She tries the tweed look, but fails to bring it off. Marsh is brilliant much of the time, but some of her many books can be avoided. I can't reread Tied up in Tinsel, or Surfeit of Lampreys.

    Handy guide here: http://wordcount-richmonde.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/ngaio-marsh.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh great thanks, Lucy, that's exactly what I need. Some of them conjured up instant memories, others not. But it sounds like I definitely need Scales of Justice next.

      Delete
  6. Moira - Oh, so glad you highlighted this one. I really do like the wit in Marsh's novels, and she's created some memorable characters. This is just one example of that. Probably because of her theatre background, I think Marsh also used dialogue effectively.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I had a couple of bad experiences with Marsh, and that caused me to forget the good points you so rightly mention. I'm looking forward to re-reading her now - I really had forgotten how witty and clever she was, and, as you say, great on dialogue.

      Delete
  7. The gay characters are fairly flaming in FALSCE SCENT too, from 1960 - well, this one sounds a lot better than that one Moira!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I kept changing my mind about her attitude to the gay characters, and in the end gave her the benefit of the doubt to some extent. I really did enjoy reading this one, might be worth a try for you if you have not been too put off...

      Delete
  8. I have a Ngaio Marsh on my bookshelf as I'm ashamed to say I haven't read any... I'll let you know if it has a boring section in the middle. l do love the pictures you've chosen to accompany this piece.

    http://cleopatralovesbooks.wordpress.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, and do let me know how you get on - it seems you have to choose your Marsh carefully. I have a few recommendations now...

      Delete
  9. I'm a fan - and now I really want to re-read looking at the lifestyle details. I think my favourite is A Surfeit of Lampreys, though as you say, the alibi section/s... less fun. But no train schedules, at least, so that's a bonus.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I loved Surfeit of Lampreys, and it's the only one that I really remembered from the past. But now am certainly up for trying more. I expect some of them will slowly start to seem familiar - I think I read a lot of them when I was young, though never liked them as much as Christie. I do remember one line in one: 'people in books were always said to be the cynosure of all eyes' which made me feel inadequate because I had never come across the word, and had no idea what it meant.

      Delete
  10. I haven't read her books either. What is recommended, given my boundaries about "isms," as other bloggers put it? And not boring either, if possible.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wait till I've read a few more! I just don't remember enough about old ones. Lucy, above, has a link to her very good list of the books, and recommends Scales of Justice.

      Delete