Thursday, 9 April 2015
Book of #1936: Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh
[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.’