The Familiar and the Relaxing

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We are in Folly Beach, SC for a week over the holiday break, taking some time away from regular life to decompress and do a lot of nothing. The family exchanged Christmas gifts earlier this week, and my husband got me a couple of interesting memoirs (by Amy Tan and David Sedaris), but all I want to do this week is read familiar (and beloved) stuff.

So it was a total boss move for me to bring two of my favorite Margery Allingham novels with me on vacation. What are they, you say? No Love Lost and More Work for the Undertaker, both in trade paperback with old covers, both well-read, both fairly close to falling apart. I’ve already finished the former and am about one-third the way through the latter.

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No Love Lost was written in the early 1950s and is actually two separate long short stories (novellas?), only one of which is really a murder mystery. The first novella involves Dr. Ann Fowler, who is trapped by a twisted man into caring for her dying romantic rival; the second focuses on Elizabeth Lane, who opts for a safe marriage with a man she doesn’t love and becomes the prime suspect when he is murdered. They are terrific, suspenseful and finely detailed and plotted and romantic as all get-out.

More Work for the Undertaker features Allingham’s principal detective, Albert Campion, and takes place right after World War II, when everyone in Britain (including Campion) is trying to readjust to civilian life. In this book, Campion teams up with an up-and-coming Scotland Yard DI to figure out who is offing members of a brilliant but now impoverished family who now rent rooms in their ancestral mansion.

The mystery is, to put it bluntly, astonishing, and the writing is (as always with Allingham) first-rate. Case in point: this passage, from the beginning of the book when Campion first arrives at the mansion and is bringing a late-night tray to one of the brilliant family members:

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It’s writing like this, along with the ingenuity of the plot and the way Allingham sketches out her characters so beautifully and clearly, that bring me back to these books over and over again. Well, that and the familiarity, of course. Happy New Year!

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Merry and Bright

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Christmastime is here/happiness and cheer/fun for all that children call/their favorite time of year

938467D8-E99D-4A0E-B37A-679119036052.pngIn case you’ve been in a coma or hiding under a rock for the last several weeks, you’ll know that it’s The Holiday SeasonTM in the Western World. Christmas trees! Santa Claus! Presents! Carolers! Holiday lights! FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!!

If my tone already sounds a bit derisive, it is. But this really won’t be a “Christmas is too commercial, let’s get back to basics, what about the starving children in Yemen” post from some pretentious person who is already That Person at parties. And it won’t be a “Christmas is too commercial, Jesus is the reason for the season, fuck off with your ‘Happy Holidays’ nonsense” post either. I am a Christian, but I’m not about to foist my beliefs on you.

It will be a post, however, about my deep ambivalence about this time of year. As a regular well cared-for middle-class kid I always loved Christmas, but even then I knew that others were not so happy in December, that it was a struggle for them. Then as I got older, this season got harder – so many gifts to buy! So many family dynamics to navigate! Are we going to your folks’ or mine this year? Let’s do both, we can fly out West on Christmas Day and see everyone! And then we got older and started losing people. It was fun when I had a kid and saw her experience the magic of Christmas, but I also missed family and friends who weren’t with us to celebrate.

And then, five summers ago, my dad died suddenly. Every day after that held grief, but the holiday season stood out. My father loved Christmas. Not the commercialism, or how early it started (once on the day after Thanksgiving, he forced a restaurant to turn off the holiday music “because you shouldn’t play Christmas songs before December 1), but he loved singing Christmas songs and buying gifts for us and decorating the house. He always insisted on buying a live tree, so we’d wait ‘til Christmas Eve to bring it in and decorate it. And we didn’t stop with the tree – we decorated the entire family room with chili lights with ornaments hanging off them. My dad called it “the cantina.”

So this time of year is extra bittersweet for me, as every Christmas song reminds me of my dad (especially the John Denver and the Muppets album, which was the official decorating soundtrack). 1C3BCC03-A91B-4E18-96BF-2AE3E8BFDFDBIt’s also the month of my daughter’s birthday, which is great and festive but sort of doubles the preparation efforts, as we try to keep her birthday as separate as possible from Jesus’s. Sometimes as I’m running around Market Basket or standing in an endless line at Marshalls, I feel the burden of the enforced cheerfulness and the to-do list and ALL THE STUFF, and it gets a bit overwhelming. I want to be happy at this time of year, but I don’t appreciate 80 zillion people and toys yelling at me to BE HAPPY, THIS IS THE BEST TIME OF YEAR DANGIT, SMILE ALREADY. Eek.

One of my biggest comforts during this season is church (still not a proselytizing post, I promise!). Advent in the Episcopal church is a time of joy and anticipation, but it’s also a time for solemn contemplation of what that means. If we’re going to celebrate Christmas, we can’t skip over the anguish of Good Friday and the miracle of Easter. Church is also a place for spiritual refreshment; Christmas Eve service is such an inspiration and balm for me. It’s also a good place to sit down for an hour and just be in the present moment, which is not always available in the hectic day-to-day of December. You don’t have to opt for religion, but I recommend some sort of quiet time where you can relax and breathe and contemplate life.

So in conclusion, let me join the chorus of voices telling you it’s OK to feel sad or angry or frustrated at this time of year. People shouldn’t be able to tell you how to feel at any time of year, and this season is no different. I made a melancholy Christmas song mix on Spotify – feel free to listen as needed.

Absences and Obsessions

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OK, so wow, it has been two-and-a-half years since I wrote a blog post here. Chalk it up to Life Happens – I’ve been so busy with work, family, friends, social media. travel, home renovation, more work, and my dog that I haven’t had a lot of time to write here or much of anywhere, really. And beyond the time issue, I haven’t felt the need to write much of anything – it’s hard to get motivated to write when you don’t have much to say.

But over the past few months I’ve been feeling the itch bubbling up inside, that gitchy sensation that FEELINGS AHOY and Things Need to Get Out and Be Expressed. There’s a cream for that, you say, and I agree, but once I came back from CVS some part of my brain just started yelling WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE and wouldn’t shut up. So here we are on this blog – although I’m also writing a piece about my junior year abroad and trying to figure out how to start a story about a regular middle-aged woman in the suburbs who finds love again in an unlikely place after her husband dies.

The other way I can tell that FEELINGS AHOY is how much I’m reading right now and how obsessed I am with various people and animals and ideas and relationships. The human object of my current obsession is actor Sebastian Stan, best known for playing Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier in the Marvel superhero movies. Why him? Well, the dark and brooding man with blue eyes is very much my type (cf. Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Mathew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy, Richard Armitage in just about anything), and…well just look at him.

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I am also currently obsessed with foxes. I’ve seen foxes in my neighborhood over the last several months and cry tears of joy every time. I want foxes on every article of clothing I own. If we lived in the Phillip Pullman world of The Golden Compass, I’d have a fox as my daemon, I just know it.

Asking “why foxes?” will get you about as useful an answer as “why Sebastian Stan?” Because…they’re beautiful and inspiring and amazing things to cherish in this world full of sadness and anger and flaming piles of garbage? That seems as good a reason as any.

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I bought and read a short book by George Saunders called Fox 8, just because it was about foxes. Actually, it’s written by a fox, who learns English by listening to humans read to their children at night in a subdivision. It’s amazing, and fully heartbreaking, and makes me want to burn down everything and let the foxes take over. Saunders wrote this before his (justifiably) much-praised Lincoln in the Bardo and it’s worth a read, and not just because it’s only 50-60 pages. Read it and ponder it, and let your own obsessions take root and flower.

 

Pretty Good

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Wow, I’ve done it again, managed to go almost two months without posting anything. To be honest with you, I’ve actually been writing stuff, but mostly for work and random therapeutic scribblings in a notebook, so nothing’s made it over to the blog in ages. But here goes nothing.

I just re-read a Patricia Moyes/Inspector Henry Tibbett mystery after many years away. My mom reminded me of their existence at some point back in March, so I picked up the only one in the stacks (Night Ferry to Death) at my wonderful library last week. It was interesting to read it on the heels of re-reading A Clutch of Constables by Ngaio Marsh a week or two earlier.

(Important side note: my copy of A Clutch of Constables has the freakiest cover, bar none, I have ever seen on a book. I finally tore it off and recycled it last month, despite my horror of defacing books, because I couldn’t even deal with it being in my house anymore. I won’t link to it or add the picture here – for obvious reasons – but google the Fontana Books 1970 paperback edition and you’ll see why. Ack. The version I’ve linked to above is a newer – and much less disturbing – design.)

Anyhoodle, the Patricia Moyes was enjoyable – a good puzzle, with interesting characters and a trip to Amsterdam, a city I visited last year and can’t wait to return to. It also featured the Harwich-Hook ferry from the UK to the Netherlands, and I do love ferries.

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Almost a cruise ship, right?

However, I’d forgotten how workmanlike Moyes’ prose is. I assumed it would be really evocative/ insightful like Marsh’s writing, or at least concise but descriptive like Christie’s narratives. However, it was discouraging to read passages such as:

Back in London, Henry found himself immersed in preparations for the Dan Blake case, and then in the case itself. Through his eminent counsel, Blake had done a deal with justice, whose blindfold seemed to have slipped a trifle…So the farce was played out with all the majesty of wigs and robes and high-flown language and little jokes from the bench. Henry gave his evident, which was purely factual, clearly and concisely. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty of manslaughter, and Dan Blake went off to serve four years with remission for conduct, while behind the scenes the narcotics squad prepared for a massive crackdown on his erstwhile master. It was all very satisfactory.

In contrast, see one of Marsh’s descriptive paragraphs in Constables, in which Superintendent Alleyn’s wife, Agatha Troy, has impulsively joined a river cruise through “Constable country,” on the Suffolk/Essex border (coincidentally, not too far from the Harwich-Hook ferry). On an excursion from the riverboat, she visits the village of

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Constable Country – not too shabby

Wapentake, so named for the old Plantagenet word for a county division, where knights dealt out justice in the middle ages.

She went into the wapentake and sat there, and fancied she felt beneath her some indication of a kind of bench that must have been chopped out of the soil, she supposed, seven centuries ago. “I’m an ignoramus about history,” Troy thought, “but I do like to feel it in my bones,” and she peopled the wapentake with heads like carven effigies, with robes in the colors of stained glass and with glints of polished steel.

You see? Moyes’ paragraph is fine, a way of conveying a good deal of information quickly to move the story forward. But there’s at least a hint of awkwardness there, and possibly too many adverbs. All that sticks with you is that Henry Tibbett has made it through his previous case and now we can move on to more interesting things. Whereas the Marsh paragraph is evocative, giving you a clear picture of both the current landscape and how it might have looked in olden days.

However, the Moyes book was very enjoyable and I might just search out more of her books in my library or elsewhere.

 

 

 

A New World

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It’s early March, and I know I’m super late to the party talking about the best movies of last year (although the Oscars were just last weekend), but I wanted to say a bit about my favorite movie of 2015 – Magic Mike XXL.

This may seem a strange choice for me, given that I love classic literature and Golden Age British mysteries, and have never been to a strip club in my life. I should be more into Far from the Madding Crowd, or The Danish Girl, or some historical drama, right? (Note: I might like these two movies, if I’d seen them, which I haven’t.)

I saw Magic Mike last July when the rest of my family was traveling in Europe. Many of my online friends had raved about it, so I went to see it just before Independence Day weekend Yes the dudes are also hotto see what all the fuss was about. The theater was packed with women of all ages, a few of them with husbands or boyfriends in tow. I didn’t really know what to expect.

And…it was magical. Very little actually *happens* in this movie – it’s just a road trip from Tampa to Myrtle Beach for a group of ex-male strippers, intent on giving their last hurrah at a stripping convention before they move on with their lives. But it showed a world in which guys could be honest and vulnerable with each other, in which straight guys could be accepting of queer and trans people.

It also portrayed a world with minimal misogyny. The group of soon-to-be-ex-strippers don’t despise the women who come to watch them dance and shower them with dollar bills, they love and respect them. Women of all shapes, colors and sizes are shown enjoying themselves, and none of them are held up for ridicule. It’s OK that women have desires and needs.

There’s a poignant scene in the middle of movie when the guys are being driven from Savannah to Charleston by an employee of another strip club.

Donald Glover talks about all the girls he meets every day “for free,” and you think he’s going to boast about how many he picks up. But no, he then turns and starts talking about how many guys just don’t even listen to their women, and he does, and it’s good for them. “We’re like healers, man,” he says, which may be a bit of an overstatement, but it emphasizes how easy it is to be good to women…and how many guys just don’t even bother.

The entire movie is like this – when the main character (Channing Tatum) talks about his ex-girlfriend, he doesn’t slag her off, he just expresses how sad he is that they wanted different things. And when he meets a sad woman on the beach at the beginning of their road trip (and later in Charleston), he doesn’t try to pick her up, he just befriends her and tries to make her smile.

I can’t even tell you what relief it was to watch this movie. It made me realize how much misogyny we experience every day, how much it’s ingrained in our culture to the extent that we only realize the extent when it’s not there.

This makes me sad…and angry. I don’t want my daughter to grow up in a world where hating herself, hating other women, or needing validation from men to feel whole is par for the course. She should honor and love and respect herself as much as this movie does. Maybe it’s time for us to demand that from our entertainment, and from our society, by supporting those things that remind us of our intrinsic worth and rejecting those that seek to belittle us and make us feel inferior.

Dreaming of that new world, you guys…let’s work to make it happen.

 

Pretty Persuasion

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My family and I are going through a phase of watching Shakespeare and Jane Austen movie adaptations, and last night we watched Persuasion (1995).

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Man, I’d forgotten how much I love this movie. It’s based on one of Austen’s most mature and fully realized novels, it has a compelling story and recognizable characters, and it’s just so well-made. I’ve seen it before many times, and here are a few thoughts about watching it this time:

  • Everything looks REAL, especially at the beginning of the movie. People are attractive, but not Hollywood-movie-star gorgeous. They have real teeth, and wrinkles. Their clothes are nice, but sometimes they don’t fit perfectly and the styles aren’t universally flattering to all body types. When the couples dance at the Musgroves’ dinner party at Uppercross, they mess up and aren’t on time and Anne sometimes plays wrong notes on the piano. It’s charming, and adds to the warmth and comfort of those earlier scenes…especially contrasted with Sir Walter’s apartment in Bath, which is perfect and cold and horrible and looks straight out of “House Beautiful 1814.”
  • Nobody thinks of Anne Elliott as a woman, as a person, with thoughts and feelings and wants. (Nobody, perhaps, except Lady Russell, and she has some exalted idea of Anne as a potential Great Lady – perhaps like Anne’s dead mother? – that is exactly what Anne doesn’t want for herself.) Anne is a sister, a daughter, a nanny, a companion, an accompanist…it’s like she’s already an old maid and her life is over.
  • Anne knows she’s a woman, a person, with thoughts and feelings and wants, but she’s so hamstrung by 8-year-old heartbreak that it takes the return of Captain Wentworth for her to be able to acknowledge these, even to herself.
  • If you thought Austen was a snob, this story flushes that idea down the toilet. She may be attached to the idea of people marrying more or less within their own rank and circle, but the nobility in this story do not come across well. Sir Walter is vain, proud, empty-headed, and shallow. Elizabeth is vain, proud, shallow, and WOW is she a total bitch. Lady Dalrymple is insipid and uninspiring. William Walter Elliott (the cousin) is cold, scheming, untrustworthy, and an insincere flatterer. Lady Russell has good intentions, but doesn’t see below the surface or consider the feelings of others (see above). Although the Crofts and the Musgroves are more lowly born, they prove much better people and more attractive personalities (even with all their quirks).
  • Mrs. Smith (“not the only widow in Bath with little to live on and no surname of consequence” – BAM! sick burn, Anne) and Nurse Rook are joys forever, and I wish they could’ve included the part in the book where Anne helps Mrs. Smith get her money back (although I know it takes away from the main story).

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  • The end of the movie is such a relief after all the agony, shame, despair, embarrassment, and grief Anne endures. That she gets what she wants and needs is the equivalent of a huge sigh of contentment and I raise my glass to her. (I *ahem* may have cried during the Bath carnival scene watching it this time.)
  • DANG the English countryside is gorgeous.

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My daughter really liked it too, although she had to stop the movie a few times and have things explained to her. One of these days I’ll hand her my volumes of Shakespeare plays and Jane Austen novels and say, “Get to work.” In the meantime, we’ll keep enjoying the movies as a family.

P.S. Don’t really want to talk about the 2007 Persuasion reboot, as the acting was very good but the plot changes were inexcusable and wrong.

Midnight Interlude

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You drive north on 128 from the train station through a mess of intersecting lane lines generated by a never-ending construction project. It’s a wonder you don’t crash into the few other cars pinballing around the road.

It’s been a long day. You went to New York the previous day, and after a lousy night’s sleep you’ve spent all of today in meetings and training, interacting with scads of people. People you like and respect, but other people nonetheless. You’ve just exited a crowded Acela train and still have a longish drive home ahead of you. Your lack of sleep, kept at bay during the day by the adrenaline of dealing with all the people, is now tragically, achingly apparent.

You drive on autopilot up the familiar highways, half-listening to a story about surrogate mothers on the radio. When it ends you switch to your Spotify mix on bluetooth, yet again thanking yourself for splurging on the car with the fancier stereo. You keep driving.

And then as you wind through the familiar backroads of Concord in the inky dark, a favorite song comes on.

Transport motorways and tramlines

Starting and then stopping

Taking off and landing

Just like that, all your pent up feelings and exhaustion rise through the top of your head and choke you. It’s a good thing you know these roads like the back of your hand because in 30 seconds you’re crying so hard you can barely see.

The emptiest of feelings

Disappointed people

Clinging onto bottles

And when it comes it’s so so disappointing

And you miss people who are gone.

And you miss your old selves.

And you miss your family, even though you’ll see them in 10 minutes. They’ll be asleep, but still.

One day I am gonna grow wings

A chemical reaction

Hysterical and useless

And suddenly it’s all too much. You want to leave, give it all up, fly away, escape. Slough it all off and start over. But where? Where would you go?

And right away you realize you have everything you need.

Right here.

Right now.

In this car.

And in the home you’ll reach in 10 minutes.

And how could you leave all that behind? It anchors you, keeps you focused, gives you perspective on what’s important. Relies on you. Loves you.

The sweetness of life surges through you, giving you the energy to get home.

And then it subsides, leaving a bitter taste in your mouth – but that could be just because it’s late and you need to brush your teeth.

And the song ends.

And you drive on.

Surfeit of Lampreys

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As I said in my last post, I’ve been re-reading a number of Ngaio Marsh mysteries. One that really stuck out to me this go-round was A Surfeit of Lampreys (U.S. title: Death of a Peer). It concerns Lord Charles Lamprey, younger brother of a rich Marquis, his wife and six children – hence the surfeit of lampreys.

Lord Charles and his family are eccentric, charming, habitually broke, hopeless in the face of reality, and perpetually optimistic that their high-flying way of life will somehow be permanently restored (this optimism being based on help from the rich and

Really, UK version, you had to go with that

Really, UK version, you had to go with that

childless Marquis and assumption that Lord Charles will someday accede to the title). They are also, as you can imagine, fairly annoying.

But not to mousy New Zealander Roberta Grey, who meets the Lampreys as a schoolgirl while they are living in her homeland during Lord Charles’ (brief) stint as a run holder of a sheep farm. She falls in love with their manner, their insouciance, their calm in the face of all hindrances and calamities. And, because Lord Charles is a hopeless businessman, there are always hindrances and calamities.

The mystery is set in motion some years later, when grown-up Roberta moves to England to get a job after her parents are killed. She meets up with the Lampreys and is staying with them when their rich Uncle Gabriel and his not-all-there wife come to visit their top-floor flat at Lord Charles’ invitation. Charles is hopeful that Gabriel will lend or give him two thousand pounds to avoid bankruptcy, and the evening is designed to facilitate this request.

As you can imagine, the visit is a complete disaster and Lord Gabriel leaves in a huff after the mother of all rows with his brother. Unfortunately, he never makes it to the lobby, having been brutally murdered in the elevator on the way down. Did one of the Lampreys do him in? Or one of the many servants in residence? Or his dotty wife? Chief Inspector Alleyn is called in to solve the case.

And if you think the Lampreys are anxious to help Alleyn with his inquiries, you don’t know your Lampreys. They do everything in their power to mislead him and obfuscate the details of the murder, making it that much harder to pinpoint the killer. You might

Not much better, 50s U.S. pulp paperback version

think that they are justified in doing so, given that odds are one of them did it, but it only hammers home their sense of entitlement and irresponsibility.

And Alleyn thinks so too, and has very little patience for this family and its prevarications – which is interesting, since as the younger son of an earl, he comes from the exact same background. But this is typical of Marsh’s novels – she’s very class-conscious and in many ways very conservative about the social order, but she doesn’t hesitate in skewering the upper classes when their characters and behavior don’t measure up.

Perhaps this is a result of her upbringing in New Zealand in a working-class family, with career turns in art, interior design and the theater (more on this later). Rich nobs and the nobility might be all very well, but their status didn’t make them good people. For this reason it’s difficult to classify Marsh as a simple snob and leave it at that.

Another aspect of this book that stood out to me on this read was the shocking nature of its crime and other attendant violence. Lord Gabriel is murdered in the elevator via sharp kitchen skewer through the eye – the same skewer used in a Biblical charade performed (to disastrous effect) by the children an hour earlier. Later in the novel another violent murder occurs, and another atrocity that I won’t even elaborate on here, but which involves insanity and witchcraft in a terrifying combination.

One thing all this violence achieves is a real feeling of horror about the murder. Sometimes it’s easy to see murders in mysteries as convenient plot devices to set the story in motion, rather than what they are – crimes against victims and against ordered society. Lord Gabriel is not the nicest man in the world – in fact, he’s unpleasant and miserly – but he in no way deserves death by eye skewer. None of us do, of course.

For all the violence, the story, characters and puzzle are compelling. Marsh does an excellent job describing the Lampreys and their retinue in highly ambivalent, but also highly human terms – yet another way that she “writes better than Christie.”

P.S. I found in my research for this piece that “a surfeit of lampreys” refers to the way that Henry I (1068-1135) died, poisoned (it was suspected) by eating his favorite eel pie. A neat reference in the title of the mystery, but perhaps understandable that they changed the title for the American audience. (P.P.S. Lampreys are themselves sort of horrifying and it’s amazing to think someone realized they were edible and cooked them. But I love lobsters, so I’m not really one to talk.)

Everything But Love

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As I mentioned earlier, I read quite a lot of Ngaio Marsh mysteries in late December and into the holiday break (I said 10 in the earlier post, but after a recount it was actually 14). Most of the ones I read were from her earlier output in the late 1930s and early to mid-1940s, though I did read several from the 50s and 60s, and finished up my spree with When in Rome (published in 1970).

Many of the secondhand paperbacks I read feature this sentence from some New York Times book review: “She writes better than Christie.” And it’s true – even in her early books you can see the sophistication behind the plotting, the characters, the sentence structure. The puzzles and solutions are compelling, Chief Inspector Alleyn makes a very interesting protagonist (and the secondary characters are generally well defined), and her writing is vivid and descriptive without being pretentious.

Marsh set herself a harder task than Christie from the beginning as well, in that Alleyn is an actual member of the C.I.D. and not a private detective (like Poirot) or a more-perceptive-than-usual elderly spinster (like Miss Marple). So much of the procedure following a homicide, is, I think more accurately depicted in Marsh’s works. Beyond Alleyn himself, there are Thompson and Bailey the fingerprint and photography guys, and Curtis the pathologist, and the coroner, and the Chief Constable, etc. etc. Marsh manages to describe their activities credibly without creating a drag on the narrative.

And there is Inspector Fox. Fox is Alleyn’s right-hand man, and he is intimately involved in almost all of the books I read. Fox presents as Alleyn’s antithesis; while Alleyn is a “gentleman” that people can’t believe is a policeman, Fox is the very caricature of a policeman, from his curly head down to his hobnail boots. He is a prototypical London working man, intensely loyal to his boss and much more snobbish/class-conscious. And, as a working man, perhaps that’s not surprising. Alleyn (as the younger son of an Earl) can afford to be tolerant and unsnobby; Fox, not so much.

Like most of the classic British mysteries, social class plays a big role in Marsh’s books. Especially in the earlier books, servants know their place, gentlemen are supposed to act like gentlemen (even when they don’t), and everyone knows when someone is “off.” A few of the earlier books feature characters with Bolshevik sympathies, and in fact in one or two of the New Zealand-located novels, socialism is accepted as the most common political leaning for all working men.

Marsh does little to counter the prevailing ideas of class, and generally accepts them as de rigeur. Interesting, as basic Wikipedia research indicates that she was born a “have not,” the only child of a bank clerk.  220px-Ngaio_Marsh_by_Henry_Herbert_Clifford_ca_1935,_cropBut perhaps she understood the destruction implicit in Bolshevism better than most or, like Fox, she was content with “the way of things.”

If there’s one area where Marsh is not a better writer than Christie, it’s in love scenes, especially in her earlier books. This seems particularly, disappointingly true when she attempts to describe the grand passion of Alleyn and his beloved, artist Agatha Troy. When Alleyn and Troy first meet, on an ocean liner at the beginning of Artists in Crime (1938), he likes her and she snubs him outright. Not a promising beginning, but it’s clear they spark, even though Troy is prickly and standoffish and fights it.

But then at the end of the book he tells her he loves her, and she admits she likes him (a lot) but hates his job because it sometimes results in the death penalty and she can’t deal. (?) This ambivalence lasts through the end of the subsequent book (Death in a White Tie – also 1938), at which point she finally gives in and admits her love and they get married. But her issues with his job last through the war until Final Curtain (1946), when they finally work things out. It’s all a bit crazy and hard to swallow.

Death in a White Tie also features some of the most cringe-inducing love dialogue I’ve ever read; although I love this mystery, it’s difficult to read the Alleyn-Troy passages.

“This must be right. I swear it must be right. I can’t be feeling this alone. Troy?”

“Not now,” Troy whispered. “No more, now. Please.”

“Yes.”

“Please.”

He stooped, took her face between his hands, and kissed her hard on the mouth. He feltDeath in a White Tie her come to life beneath his lips. Then he let her go.

“And don’t think I shall ask you to forgive me,” he said. “You’ve no right to let this go by. You’re too damn’ particular by half, my girl. I’m your man and you know it.”

They stared at each other.

“That’s the stuff to give the troops,” Alleyn added. “The arrogant male.”

“The arrogant turkey cock,” said Troy shakily.

“I know, I know. But at least you didn’t find it unendurable. Troy, for God’s sake can’t we be honest with each other? When I kissed you just then you seemed to meet me like a flame. Could I have imagined that?”

Uuuuuuugggggghhhhh. These two are much too awesome to have to say such bilge. But given how great the rest of her writing is, I’ll give these brief terriblenesses a pass. There’s more to say about Marsh’s love of the stage, and her love of art, and her love of New Zealand, but that’ll have to wait ’til later.

 

Jacques Brel Interlude

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I had big plans for my writing this evening – I was going to write my amazing, perceptive and fresh views on all my Ngaio Marsh reading over the holidays. The piece that would crystallize all my thoughts and justify all the re-reading. The piece that would help me organize a larger, more ambitious piece on all the British Goddesses of Classic Mystery.

(This makes no sense to you right now, but one day, I hope, it will.)

But it was a tough day and I wasn’t feeling all that great, and I spent the last of my energy giving a work presentation that ended at 6.15 pm. So instead of the amazing, perceptive, fresh take on Ngaio Marsh mysteries and Chief Inspector Alleyn, I’ve got nothing.

Except the following. These are the lyrics and video of my favorite Jacques Brel song, “Une Île.” They make me happy and seem appropriate at the end of a challenging, freezing cold winter day. Voici venu le temps de vivre, indeed. À bientôt.

Une île

Une île au large de l’espoir

Où les hommes n’auraient pas peur

Et douce et calme comme ton miroir

 

Une île

Claire comme un matin de Pâques

Offrant l’océane langueur

D’une sirène à chaque vague

 

Viens

Viens mon amour

Là-bas ne seraient point ces fous

Qui nous disent d’être sages

Ou que vingt ans est le bel âge

 

Voici venu le temps de vivre

Voici venu le temps d’aimer

 

Une île

Une île au large de l’amour

Posée sur l’autel de la mer

Satin couché sur le velours

 

Une île

Chaude comme la tendresse

Espérante comme un désert

Qu’un nuage de pluie caresse

 

Viens

Viens mon amour

Là-bas ne seraient point ces fous

Qui nous cachent les longues plages

 

Viens mon amour

Fuyons l’orage

Voici venu le temps de vivre

Voici venu le temps d’aimer

 

Une île

Une île qu’il nous reste à bâtir

Mais qui donc pourrait retenir

Les rêves que l’on rêve à deux

 

Une île

Voici qu’une île est en partance

Et qui sommeillait en nos yeux

Depuis les portes de l’enfance

 

Viens

Viens mon amour

Car c’est là-bas que tout commence

Je crois à la dernière chance

Et tu es celle que je veux

Voici venu le temps de vivre

Voici venu le temps d’aimer