Thursday, 9 April 2015

Book of #1936: Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh



published 1936



Death in Ecstasy 1


[Curiosity has led journalist Nigel Bathgate to a religious ceremony in an obscure church, The House of the Sacred Flame, near his flat]

Over the threshold came two youths dressed in long vermilion robes and short overgarments of embroidered purple… They were followed by an extremely tall man clad in embroidered white robes of a Druidical cut and flavour…

From all round the hall came a murmur. It swelled and was broken by isolated cries. The large lady was whimpering, further along a man’s voice cried out incoherently. The priest had gone to the altar and from a monstrance he drew out a silver flagon and a jewelled cup. He handed the flagon to the dark acolyte and passed his hand across the cup. A flame shot up from within, burned blue and went out. In the front rank a woman leapt to her feet [and] ran up the chancel steps and with a shrill ‘Heil!’ fell prostrate under the torch. The priest stood over her, the cup held above his head. She was followed by some half-a-dozen others who ranged themselves in a circle about her and raised their hands towards the cup.


observations: The Church of the Sacred Flame is in the nicely-named Knocklatchers Row: Nigel goes to it because he can see it from his flat and he is bored - of course he will happen to tip up there the day a murder is committed, with poison in the sacred cup.

This is my 1936 book for Rich Westwood’s year of the month meme over at Past Offences. By chance I happened to have just read a Marsh book from the year before, Enter a Murderer, and it was most instructive to make a comparison.

The whole story revolves round the church, and it is clear from the getgo that this is a fake religion, something of a cult, probably a con trick, and that the priest is not a nice man at all. The followers of the cult are shown as (mostly) absurd and stupid. The two acolytes are plainly meant to be gay, and are mocked by the investigators and by Marsh in a very depressing way – the date seems no excuse for the unpleasantness. At one point the revered Inspector Alleyn seems to spike someone’s drink in order to get information from him.

The trouble is that Marsh plainly despises her characters so much that it becomes ridiculous. They are all shown as feeble or gullible or unpleasant or all three – but their foibles are no worse than those of the theatrical milieu in Enter a Murderer, and both books have a sidelplot concerning drug dealing. But in the other book (blogpost to follow) Marsh shows a cheerful tolerance of their ways. Death in Ecstasy is far less enjoyable because of her own mean-spirited portrayal of the characters. 

Otherwise it could have been very good – the atmosphere of the small, dimly-lit church, the wild weather outside, the priest intoning and the array of different Initiates could have been a real page-turner, and would make a wonderful TV film. At times it reminded me of a Dennis Wheatley book (he had started writing a couple of years previously, and one of the acolytes has the last name Wheatley) or of the Father Brown short story about a dubious religious leader, The Eye of Apollo.

There were odd moments of joy: Alleyn says he dabbled with the Plymouth Brethren when at university: ‘I believe nowadays they go in for Black Magic’ – that’s undergraduates, not the blameless Brethren, and perhaps another reference to Wheatley. One character says about another: ‘Cara Quayne was a marvellous person – so piercingly decorative.’ And there is a funny discussion about detective stories later on, with the sleuths deciding who would be guilty if they were in a book by Christie, Sayers and so on.

As a detective story – well, there are only so many people who could have done it, and they find out who it was: there’s not much else to say, and it was hardly surprising.

As a book of 1936 it created a very nice picture of 1930s London – gas fires, bedsitters and service flats. Changing into evening dress for dinner and theatre. The boredom of wet Sunday nights that would make church welcome. And there is a brief mention of Hitler.

Click on the label below for more Ngaio Marsh.

The picture looks like the religious ceremony above on a quick glance. A closer look (shepherds in the corner) shows it is a nativity play. It’s from a 1920s book about staging and thus costuming religious performances, which has the delightful idea of turning chiffon motoring veils into Biblical headdresses, and tells us that 106 yards of unbleached muslin could make all the costumes for an Easter play if ‘dyed into soft, clear harmonious colours.’










28 comments:

  1. "Inspector Alleyn seems to spike someone’s drink in order to get information from him." There's a similar nasty scene in Grave Mistake. Marsh was so good, but sometimes she needs saving from herself. I like the way Alleyn says re the Brethren "It seemed very important at the time." Agree with you re the atmosphere. Nostalgic for those gas heated bedsits now I don't have to live in one.

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    1. "Sometimes she needed saving from herself" - perfect, yes. Doing some re-reading I'm overall very impressed, but then there are those odd crass moments. Small rooms were easy to heat! - I have great nostalgia for a real attic room I lived in, cosy and comfortable, but dodgy electrics and if there'd been a fire I'd never have got out. But watching b/w films in bed with the fire glowing in the corner...

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  2. Moira - Interesting comparison between this one and Enter a Murderer. These aren't theatre people, so perhaps Marsh wasn't as sympathetic towards them? In any case, I agree that there's a great sense of place here, both at the church and in the larger London setting. There are a few scenes too where (I thought) the suspense was built rather well. But Marsh's best? No, not in my opinion. Of course, Marsh at her weakest was heaps better than lots of people at their best.

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    1. Yes that's very fair comment Margot, she really knew how to put together a crime story. And I love a theatre-set murder, but there was something a bit more unusual about this one, it was very memorable.

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  3. The two gay men are there simply to be ridiculed, seemingly, and Alleyn and Fox do plenty of it. Probably realistic police behavior enough for its day, except that it's disappointing to see a sophisticate like Alleyn acting that way. Not to mention that someone who calls his assistant "my Foxkin" should not be casting stones at mincing behavior in males.

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    1. Yes I'm sure it was all too realistic, but you would expect better from Marsh and Alleyn....

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  4. Death In Ecstasy
    And well you might, my Foxkin, well you might. Hullo, Bathgate.

    Grave Mistake
    You tell me that, my Foxkin.” “Ah!” said Fox.

    Enter a Murderer
    “You are going to climb Jacob's ladder for me tomorrow, my Foxkin.”

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    1. Yes indeed Curtis, nicely pointed out....

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  5. That last line sounds especially suggestive to me!

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  6. Really enjoyed your review Moira, but it is becoming clear to me that her lopsided approach to character and plotting I am never going to get on with Marsh - this is another that I shan't be trying!

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    1. After a long gap in which I read no Marsh, the new assault on her is dividing into 'much better than I remembered' and 'much worse than I remembered'. I think you successfully put me off trying False Scent any time soon!

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    2. FALSE SCENT really was the pits .... Glad to say it is NOT all coming back to me :)

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  7. Moira, I remain guilty of not having read a single book by Ngaio Marsh. Hopefully,I won't stay that way for long.

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    1. You should read something by her, at least try her - but as you'll gather from post and comments, choose your book well...

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  8. It is interesting to go back and reread and have a totally different reaction. I certainly have plenty more Marsh to read or re-read but it will take a while.

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    1. I am doing some Marsh re-reading, as I said, and am not doing it in order, as you would! But I'm finding they have a huge variety of quality, even ones written quite close together...

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  9. There must be a Ngaio that Sergio would find Nice, not Naughty!

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  10. I think I'll be passing on this one (and probably this year)!

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    1. Fair enough. You should take action - pick a year with some books you want to read, and suggest it to Rich: I think he's glad of suggestions.

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    2. I'm a shrinking violet Moira - don't like putting my head above the parapet....

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    3. Hard to believe! I can't remember which one it was, but I got to choose a year just by telling him I had a handy book....

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  11. I've always loved Clutch of Constables, Final Curtain and Death at the Dolphin - I do think they are Marsh's best and would recommend them to anyone trying her books for the first time. But I took a step back from her work when, in Light Thickens, it's suggested a character (Peregrine Jay), pretends to have diverticulitis, which is described as a 'joke' and which American women 'solemnly say their husbands have'. It's in fact a potentially life-threatening and agonisingly serious condition usually only found in older people. But Marsh even has the local GP confirming the joke. Very bad writing/research/editing.

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    1. I'm working my way through them, so will look out for Clutch. She had some strong prejudices that she never bothered to re-examine, I think - here's another one to add to the list.

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    2. Clutch is very good - Troy plays a prominent part in it, which I always like.

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