Monday, 2 February 2015

Scales of Justice by Ngaio Marsh


published 1955


Scales of justice 2

George stood in a teapot attitude, one hand in his jacket pocket, the other on the back of a chair, one neatly knickered leg straight, one bent. Mark scowled devotedly upon Rose who was pale, had obviously wept a great deal and seemed in addition to her grief to be desperately worried. Kitty, in a tweed suit, high heels and embroidered gloves, was talking to George. She looked exhausted and faintly sulky, as if tragedy had taken her by surprise and let her down….

Alleyn looked at George. ‘Your clothes and boots, please [from the golfing afternoon]?’

‘Ah, spiked shoes and stockings and plus-fours,’ George said loudly . ‘Very old-fogeyish . Ha-ha.’

‘I think they’re jolly good,’ Kitty said wearily. ‘On the right man.’ George’s hand went to his moustache, but he didn’t look at Kitty. He seemed to be exquisitely uncomfortable. ‘I,’ Kitty added, ‘wore a check skirt and a twin set. Madly county, you know,’ she added, desperately attempting another joke, ‘on account we played golf.’ She sounded near to tears.

‘And your shoes?’ Alleyn asked. Kitty stuck out her feet. Her legs, Alleyn noted, were good. Her feet, which were tiny, were shod in lizard skin shoes with immensely high heels .

‘Not so county,’ Kitty said, with the ghost of a grin; ‘but the best I had.’
 
Scales of Justice 3


observations: Blog friend Lucy Fisher got me to read Marsh’s Singing in the Shrouds last year, and then recommended Scales of Justice (Lucy has a helpful list of Ngaio Marsh books here.) She mentions ‘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’. Indeed both books are cornucopias of fabulous clothes descriptions – as I said about Shrouds, I could do a week’s worth of entries on each book. A young woman wears a full-skirted housecoat, while her stepmother wears a flame-coloured top over those tight velvet trousers. Just in the headwear department there’s a tasselled smoking-cap, hideous tweed fishing hats, and a solar topee. Everyone wears tweeds at some point.

There is splendid use of language and unusual phrases too. ‘Sorry you’re feeling so cheap’ one character says to a dying man. There is a mention of ‘poodle-faking’ – the manly man’s insult for someone he thinks is too much of a ladies’ man. A man dislikes a woman when she ‘held out her left hand in a gesture that he found distressingly second rate.’ The word ‘woundy’ is used meaning something like extremely: ‘a woundy great trout’. The district nurse ‘turns up her apron’, which is so that the outer surface doesn’t touch her coat when she is travelling between patients – hygiene rules. There is a photograph of ‘Kitty looking like an imitation of something it would be difficult to define’ (I have tried hard to make sense of that and cannot, but it sounds good).

So – a treasure-trove of clothes, and language, all either first-rate (unlike the hand-shaking above) or intriguing. But the plot concerning the scales of trout (there is purpose in that title) seems to lose its way entirely – the fish scales are the reason why Inspetor Alleyn is so interested in what everyone is wearing and is going to confiscate every stitch that everyone was wearing that day. (He says himself the case is unlikely to stand up in court.) Meanwhile, the snobbishness is beyond description, out of control. At one point it looks as though Marsh might even subvert it:
‘You never know,’ she muttered, ‘with that sort of people what they may do.’
‘Nor,’ he said, ‘with other sorts either, it seems.’ A dark unlovely flush flooded her face.
It’s a moment to relish, once you’ve got through the complications of the plot to this point. But sadly the firm line is not held to, and a quite shocking crime in the past is not really taken seriously enough.

Both the district nurse and the grand lady are rather eccentric, and have quirks of speech, sometimes strange and sometimes clich├ęd. But this is seen as laughably embarrassing and twee in the case of the (down-market) nurse, and wonderful and charming in the case of the old lady. I found this blatant and very annoying. However, Marsh gets points back for having an absolutely delightful romance between two rather unlikely characters….

I enjoyed the book hugely until the final 10 or 15 pages, and will no doubt carry on re-reading more of her books.

The golfing man is from the National Library of Ireland, a favourite resource. The other picture is from the NYPL, and I used part of it in an earlier entry.













14 comments:

  1. I'm glad you're going to carry on reading Marsh, Moira. I think she was really skilled at creating visual images (like clothes), and could, I think, do dialogue rather well. Admittedly the novels do vary in quality. But in the main I think it's a good series, and I'm glad you liked enough about this entry to continue it

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes indeed Margot - I have been pleasantly surprised. I remembered Marsh as being rather dull and same-y, but looking again is paying dividends, I'm enjoying them very much.

      Delete
  2. "Woundy" is dialect, I think. The OED has it as "Obs. exc. arch." meaning "Very great; extreme". I think the character using it is a yokel type.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you're right. Some characters use it in inverted commas, as you might say - they are quoting the local view.

      Delete
  3. Moira: Golfers had such style in that era. I do not golf. At the same time the golfers I see on the local course as I drive by are always casually dressed. I do not know anyone who would wear a suit in this era to go golfing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Here golfers are usually dressed in a smart casual way that non-golfers rather mock - very neat and well-cut, but with strange colours and loud patterns. I think the chap above looks more elegant.

      Delete
  4. A 1955 book? You're either a really quick reader or someone's been feeding you inside information! I can't remember if I have anything by this author or not.......

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know! Complete chance, I didn't realize till this morning that I'd accidentally fulfilled my duty by Rich's year of the month meme. Pretty good for 2nd Feb, hey? I'll probably do another one....

      Delete
  5. Oh my goodness, you are fast. How did you do that? (I see you answered my question above.) You are not convincing me to read Marsh. Although I have read half of her 32 books (the first 16 of course), and have all the others on the TBR pile, so I sure I shall read more. I will check out Lucy's helpful list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, sheer coincidence! If you've read the first 16 you are doing well... I think I like them for the details of life, even if other aspects annoy me.

      Delete
  6. It is disappointing that so many of the Marsh books seem to let themselves down in terms gf plotting but you make the phraseology sound wonder - 'poodle faking' indeed! Thanks Moira.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As I say to Tracy above, I love the sociological details, and of course the clothes. I'm trying to remember if any of them has a particularly good plot - some of JDCarr's and Agatha Christie's solutions live on in the mind, not sure hers do.

      Delete
  7. I've always liked the contrast between Kitty Cartarette and the people around her in this book. It's a theme that was taken on more than once by women GAD writers, even Wentworth and Christie as I recall, about the "town" woman who won't wear decent tweeds and sensible shoes when she's in the country and is thus considered No Better Than She Should Be. Contrasted against hearty scrubbed girls in shabby tweeds whose families have lived in the neighbourhood for 900 years... a lot of class-based snobbery in this book but I find it interesting as well as distressing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You make a good point Noah, and I agree - I enjoy observing the sociological details while abhorring the snobbery! And yes, it's that neat reversal: the townie women are TOO neat and smart, the real posho country people are quite shabby and wear mended clothes.

      Delete