[One of Flossie Rubrick’s young companions is describing the day she went missing]
‘It may give you some idea of her character when I tell you she began with the announcement that in ten minutes she was going to the wool-shed to try her voice. We were exhausted. The evening was stiflingly hot. Flossie, who was fond of saying she thought best when walking, had marched us up and down the rose garden and had not spared us the glass houses and the raspberry canes…
During this promenade she had worn a long diaphanous coat garnished with two diamond clips. When we were at last allowed to sit down, Flossie, heated with exercise and embryonic oratory, had peeled off this garment and thrown it over the back of the deck-chair. Some twenty minutes later, when she was about to resume the garment, one of the diamond clips was missing. Douglas, blast him, discovered the loss while he was helping Flossie into her coat and, like a damned officious booby, immediately came over all efficient and said we’d look for it. With fainting hearts we suffered ourselves to be organized into a search party; this one to the rose-beds, that to the cucumber frames. My lot fell among the vegetable marrows. Flossie, encouraged by Douglas, was most insistent that we separate and cover the ground exhaustively. She had the infernal cheek to announce that she was going off to the wool-shed to practise her speech and was not to be disturbed. She marched off down a long path, bordered with lavender, and that, as far as we know, was the last time she was seen alive.’
commentary: This is my book of 1945 for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at his blog Past Offences.
Inspector Alleyn is in New Zealand doing his war work, and is called to a remote sheep station: Flossie Rubrick has been murdered there – her body was packed into a bale of wool and sent off. That alone might not have brought Alleyn, but there is some hush-hush work being doing on the station, and a question of possible Nazi spies.
Unusually (I think) for Marsh, the murder comes right at the beginning of the book. In all the others I have read by her lately, she establishes a mise en scene and gives you plenty of relationships and scenes and motives, then kills someone off. This is very different, and actually gives Marsh room to do something quite compelling. Alleyn arrives some time after the murder, and spends time with all the surviving inhabitants of the station, and hears their various versions of what happened, and of the character of the dead woman.
She is a woman MP – still a rarity then – and a very accomplished and bossy one. Her husband (who has also died) gives the impression of being rather hen-pecked. They owned the station, and – childfree themselves – have assembled a variety of young people around them. These are the suspects that Alleyn interviews, and they have some very different ideas about Flossie – we are expected to build our own picture of her from the different versions. This is quite a common trope in Agatha Christie, but I haven’t come across it in Marsh, and I thought she did it exceptionally well, I was fascinated by the different angles. That even gave me patience to sit through the usual who-was-where-when farrago, and those sudden announcements at the end that ‘only X could possibly have done Y, so…’. I’m convinced that’s not entirely true, but don’t have the strength of character to go back and wade through the boring details to prove it.
The descriptions of the New Zealand landscape, the remoteness of the place, and the details of the lives of the sheepmen, were all vivid and memorable. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this book, but I enjoyed it enormously.
As a book of 1945: plenty of mentions of the war. I’m not sure the whole spying strand worked out properly – there were aspects that didn’t make sense. Otherwise, it was very much a book of the 1940s, rather than a book about WW2…
More Ngaio Marsh all over the blog. I did the 1947 Final Curtain (where Alleyn has just arrived back from NZ) for last month’s Past Offences meme.
From Kristine’s photostream – diamond clips and a not-very-diaphanous coat…
There are plenty of pictures of sheep shearing around, but slightly harder to find NZ ones – but this is shearing at Wairarapa, from an early 20th century book on New Zealand.