Friday, May 10, 2013

Friday's Forgotten (or Overlooked ) Book: SPINSTERS IN JEOPARDY (1954) by Ngaio Marsh

A preposterous book peopled with preposterous characters in a preposterous plot, and yet Ngaio Marsh makes it all work. How is it that some authors can get away with stuff like this?

I don't know.

(Even the title is a stretch, explained near the end in case the reader missed the connotation.)

Agatha Christie did this sort of thing all the time. Not to mention, John Dickson Carr and a few others whose names escape me at the moment. The height of preposterousness is T.H. White's DARKNESS AT PEMBERLEY, but damn if it doesn't work a treat and leave you wishing White had written more mysteries - many more.

SPINSTERS IN JEOPARDY begins with a well-known plot device: murder spotted from the window of a moving train. In this instance though, it's not some old lady looking on from her train compartment, it's Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of the C.I.D. and his wife Troy (Agatha Troy, the famed British painter). They are traveling in France with their little son Ricky, on holiday, but in Alleyn's case, also to do a bit of police work on the side. There is this drug smuggling ring that needs to be dealt with.

This was back in the day when people still used the term 'reefers' and it was thought that marijuana was almost as life destroying as heroin. (I suppose that's been dis-proved.) Some of the terminology is very quaint, but the deadly implications of heroine can never be emphasized enough in my view - then and now. One of the main reasons, by the way, that I normally avoid books with drugs as a main theme is that it all seems so sordid, mindless and soul crushing. But I digress.

The overall setting of SPINSTERS IN JEOPARDY is the South of France, but the more immediate setting is the lazy little town of Rocqueville and the nearby dark and creepy Chateau de la Chevre D'Argent. (Chateau of the Silver Goat.) A very atmospheric place full of nooks, crannies and dark shadows.

The Chateau is the home of a 'jet-set cult' at the heart of the dope smuggling business which Alleyn has been asked to investigate - in tandem with the French police. The fact that his family is with him is meant as cover though to me it seems preposterous that Alleyn would connive in this way, allowing himself to believe that there is no specific danger to Troy and Ricky. But nobody's perfect.

I'm very fond of Alleyn and Troy, especially as a married couple and then as parents. They seem to have the sort of relationship any woman might envy. They even have a small son who speaks as if he were a very proper little old man. As some of you might know, I am especially fond of precocious British children of the well-to-do (if written well). This little six year old is fond of using the words, 'lavish' and 'however.' I have to say I was charmed by the whole thing. Especially when Alleyn and his wife worry that maybe Ricky is just a tad too precociously inclined (their friends have remarked). All is done with the suave Alleyn touch.

Back to the plot:

Moments after Alleyn and Troy have spotted the murder from a window, a fellow traveler aboard their train - an elderly British lady (Miss Truebody) traveling alone - is stricken with appendicitis. Alleyn and Troy, as fellow compatriots, feel they can't turn their backs on her. Coincidentally, the only doctor available is a certain Dr. Ali Baradi (a sweaty and oily sort reminding me very of much of Wilkie Collins' evil creation, Count Fosco) who resides at the Chateau.

Alleyn realizes that the murder glimpsed from the train took place in a room at that same sinister chateau. He proposes to leave his wife and son at the hotel in town while he insinuates himself into Baradi's group of restless ex-pats. And what better entry to the place than the poor, stricken Miss Truebody who lies on the brink on death unless Baradi performs an immediate operation. (A bit cold-blooded, but when providence provides...)

The Chateau de la Chevre D'Argent belongs to an effete 'poseur', an embarrassment of a man, the very wealthy Monsieur Oberon of indefinable nationality and pretensions of grandeur - the leader of the so-called cult. The sort of man who has begun to believe his own dangerous malarkey, but a man not really as clever as he might, at first, appear.

The jaw-dropping activities which occur at the chateau on one Thursday night a month are hinted at (think pentagram), but mostly left to the imagination. Though we aren't spared the 'sight' of the repulsive Monsieur Oberon walking around in the buff. Drugs and sex go...uh, hand in hand, I suppose.

My favorite characters in the book, besides Alleyn, Troy and their son, are the young and terribly handsome Frenchman Raoul Milano, the Alleyn's indefatigable local driver, and Monsieur Dupont of the Surete, Acting Commisaire at the Prefecture, Rocqueville. I love how Dupont keeps calling Ricky, 'Ricketts' - so adorably French. I love how Raoul and Dupont join the hunt when 'Ricketts' is kidnapped and the frantic mother and father must keep their heads while searching for their boy - Alleyn desperately trying to keep his real identity from the culprits up at the chateau.

Oh we know who the bad guys are going in, no question. What we don't know is who was killed and why and who at the Chateau can be counted on to not interfere when the you-know-what hits the fan. Besides that, there is the excellently written suspense of the kidnapping and search for Ricky and near the end, an impersonation which comes out of the blue. Ngaio Marsh is brilliant at misdirection. There is also a brilliant scene at a local chemical factory when the righteous officialdom of the law comes up against egocentric criminal stubbornness. Just fabulous writing.

There is also a thumping good scene in which Raoul in all his glorious Frenchiness berates his weeping girlfriend (who works at the chateau as a maid and has been duped into taking part in the kidnapping). It's the sort of scene which only an experienced writer (sure of herself) can fashion. It surges into life in your imagination and you watch the thing with dismay and amusement. You can even hear the French accent of the rightly outraged beau. (He is speaking in French, but the author translates for our benefit.)

Alleyn, Raoul and Teresa sat on an ornamental garden seat in the factory grounds. Teresa wept and Raoul gave her cause to do so.

"Infamous girl," Raoul said, "to what sink of depravity have you retired? I think of your perfidy," he went on, "and I spit." He rose, retired a few paces, spat and returned. 

"I compare your behavior," he continued, "to its disadvantage with that of Herod, the Anti-Christ who slit the throats of first-born innocents. Ricky is an innocent and also, Monsieur will correct me if I speak in error, a first-born. He is, moreover, the son of Monsieur, my employer, who, as you observe, can find no words to express his loathing of the fallen woman with whom he finds himself in occupation of this contaminated piece of garden furniture."

"Spare me," Teresa sobbed. "I can explain myself."

Raoul bent down in order to place his exquisite but distorted face close to hers. "Female ravisher of infants," he apostrophized. "Trafficker in unmentionable vices. Associate of perverts."

Well, as you can see, Raoul has a tendency to get carried away. It is a very enjoyable scene. Ngaio Marsh has Alleyn look askance at all this as if he's watching grand opera. And so do we. It's wonderful.

At any rate, all will be well. Teresa will be vindicated and the happy couple will be left at the end of the book, after a fabulous feast at the future in-laws' cafe, planning their wedding.

Ngaio Marsh is 'lavish' in her fabulousness, don't miss her books. Here's a link to my favorites.

I read all of Marsh's books in one fell swoop, several years ago, and now it looks as if I'm beginning again.

Don't forget to check in at Patti's blog to get the low-down on other forgotten (or overlooked) books.


  1. I've only really liked one of her books. Can't remember which one, but it was one of her may theater related mystieres. FINAL CURTAIN, maybe? It's all a blur. I stopped reading her ages ago when I was still in school. But this one-- Preposterous? Eyewitness to murder on a passing train? A creepy chauteau named after a goat? Sign me up! I'll have to track it down and give that ol' New Zealander another try now I'm older and wiser. ;^)

  2. I haven't read this one for a while, Yvette, and your review brings back memories - particularly of some of the interesting plot twists (such as Alleyn's long-unidentified correspondent). Looks like it's time for a reread... :-)

  3. Yvette, this is such a fine review — thanks! About the witness to a murder in a passing train — wonder how much it influenced Christie's book that came later. The plots are very different, of course. I have picked up and dropped Marsh's books many times in the past but your enthusiasm for her work is beginning to catch on.

  4. Well, I was a late in life convert too, John. I think her books might be best read late. :)

    This one is delightful, but don't forget to take a look at my recommended Nagio Marsh favorites.

    Don't miss A SURFEIT OF LAMPREYS aka DEATH OF A PEER. Among others.

  5. This was a re-read for me too, Les. I'm trying to control myself from settling down in a Ngaio Marsh haze for the next few weeks. :)

    Still looking or other Ellery Queen books too.

    When will this torment end? HA!

  6. While everyone's taste in reading is different, Prashant, I still maintain that Marsh was a brilliant creator of plots and characters. Her writing style does not lend itself well, I think, to young readers, but for us oldies, it's wonderful and even, refreshing.

    Alleyn is such an inspired creation.

  7. What a wonderful review Yvette. I feel like grabbing up this book straightaway. I have always liked Marsh since I read ARTISTS IN CRIME, ages ago.

    Loved that scene, esp. where he gets up to spit. Did thunder and lightening accompany those pronouncements?

  8. I KNOW, Neer. You'd think at least a lightning bolt or two. Ha!

    There is, of course, a bad storm on the one night when Alleyn and Raoul must sneak into the chateau. Well, you expected no less.

    I hope you'll get a chance to read this.


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