Tuesday, 14 April 2015
Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh
[Everyone backstage after a shooting has to be searched]
“Miss Emerald, will you take off your wrap?”
She was clad in a sequinned sheath that fitted her like a skin….
“Do whatever you like,” said Janet Emerald. She held up her magnificent arms and closed her eyes. Alleyn passed his delicate hands lightly over the surface of her dress. He too had closed his eyes. He looked as though his brain was in his fingertips. There was something uncannily remote about him. Lightly the hands swept down the sides and front of the sequinned dress, down the flanks, pausing at the knees and then dropping disinterestedly away. He picked up the fallen wrap, felt it all over, shook it and held it out politely by the collar…
[Later, Alleyn is discussing the searches with his assistant Fox]
“Fox” said Alleyn, “have they been searched?”
“The men have thoroughly. I- I kind of patted [Dulcie]. She’s wearing hardly anything.”…
“There was nothing under those sequins except the Emerald. She doesn’t wear stays.”
“Nor does Dulcie,” said Inspector Fox gloomily.
“Fox, we forget ourselves.”
observations: Absolutely splendid setup: during a performance of a thriller, the fake bullets in a gun have been replaced by real ones, so an actor is shot and killed onstage during the play. Who could have had the opportunity to do the switch? (As in so many of these books, just about everyone had a motive.)
I recently read the next Marsh book, Death in Ecstasy, blogpost here, and concluded that she is a lot better writing about the theatre (which she knows and likes) than un-established religion (which she appears to have no time for). So this book was a lot more fun.
Also recently, in relation to Anthony Quinn’s Curtain Call, I was musing on theatrical dressers in books and saying that they needed a militant union: there might be call for that here. One dresser is walking out with Props, but has been seduced by the villainous actor, and – in an interesting take on the family business – her father is a dresser in the same theatre, so may be out for revenge on his daughter’s honour. Sadly Trixie is very much a stock character – ‘the girl howled, and said she never did no harm to anybody’ - and the plot strand doesn’t go anywhere much.
This was the second of Marsh’s Alleyn mysteries, and it’s instructive to compare her detective in this one with his character in the 1950s (eg Scales of Justice and Singing in the Shrouds). Alleyn is brittle and raffish and smart-alecky - not at all the avuncular reassuring figure he later became. There is an implication that he fancies one of the suspects, but has to hold back in case she is guilty. He is working with a journalist Nigel Bathgate – who appears in several of the books – with the most unconvincing relationship ever. Nigel has to hold back on exclusives, has his copy censored by Alleyn, and helps out with the investigation, including taking notes of interviews.
Even by the standards of 1930s Golden Age murder stories this is hard to take, but the important thing is just to enjoy the story, which is easy enough. There is a literal blackout – all the lights were off for a scene change – during which the cartridge switch must have taken place, and it isn’t really worth the casual reader trying to work out who was where, and the geography of the dressing rooms, and who could have got past X and Y in the corridor. It’s all terribly unlikely, but great fun, with lavish extra scenes, and people being followed round London, and a lot of history about a libellous article written years ago, and some drug dealing.
Miss Emerald above is an older actress, substantial but still beautiful. This shouted out for the photo above, of American artist Bianca Todd, from the Smithsonian - despite the fact that it has been used twice before on the blog, standing in for Molly Bloom in her singing finery, and for one of Terry Pratchett’s witches all dressed up for a night at the opera.
This Angela Lansbury shot also seems to fit the description, copyright NYPL.
Angela Lansbury has just won an Olivier Award for her marvellous performance in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit on the London stage, and has featured on the blog before.