Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Ngaio Marsh : False Scent, 1959

Released in 1959 for the first time, the New York Times in his column of book reviews, called the novel by Ngaio Marsh False Scent a "delightfully witty and vivid novel of the London theater".
It’s the twenty-fourth novel starring Sir Roderick Alleyn, by noble birth, the first inspector and now superintendent of Scotland Yard. And once again, as in other past, he has to do with a crime matured into a community theater.
Mary Bellamy is a well-known theater actress, who plays with an exclusive contract for the Society of Marchant. Her husband, Sir Charles Templeton is major shareholder of the company Marchant: he,  in a moment of difficulty of the Company immediately after the second world war, came to meet Marchant holding up the possibilities and allowing his company to react and succeed . And Mary Bellamy only recites for them.
The day of the birthday of Bellamy, is organized a lavish party at her home, and in addition to many important guests of finance and the aristocracy, there are close friends: the director Timon Gantry; costume designer Bertie Saracen; the youngest actress and partner of  Bellamy on scenes, Pinky Cavendish; the godson of Bellamy and Charles, Richard Dakers, playwright; his girlfriend Anelida nephew of Octavius ​​Brown, antiquarian and bookseller, and the Colonel Warrender, a close friend of Templeton spouses. However the fate knocks at the door, because at that day when everything should be fine ... before Bellamy argues with Bertie and Pinky in the greenhouse, after she gave her the expensive "Helpless" perfume, for reasons of jealousy (Bellamy wants to be the first woman of the company and does not allow other might undermine his position of prestige and dominance in the Society and at the same time pretend that all even the costume should dress well just her), then fights with Timon, Richard and Anelida, when it comes to knowing that the last play written by Richard was not like the other dedicated to her, but to his girlfriend and is she who should recite it, while director and impresario would try to make her play on scenes, even these passages are intended as a betrayal and a conspiracy, so soon atmosphere becomes red-hot and Anelida and uncle are shown the door: Richard goes away, accompanying the girl and her uncle, and all other people manifest signs of impatience towards Mary.

The party goes on, and among the flash of the official photographers and cocktails prepared by the barmans, the tragedy is consumed: shortly before the opening of gifts, Florence, the personal maid to Mary, cries her mistress is very ill and she asks a doctor : Florence found her on the floor in agony, but still alive. Waiting for a doctor and the tragedy is over: Mary Bellamy turns up dead, his face twisted into an ugly grimace, near the can of Slaypest, a highly effective insecticide, but also extremely dangerous. On the face, on the dress, everywhere, trails and streams of insecticide, as if the dead had sprayed it  for inattention. But it is clear that this never could have happened because Mary was in love with herself, she would rather splashed on him to others. Inspector Fox, suspecting something, immediately calls his supervisor and friend, the superintendent Alleyn, which begins with begins knowing the environment and continues questioning the present, while Fox deals instead of servitude. It appears that a few moments before the housekeeper Old Ninn and  the maid Florence have heard, before a hiss and then a thud, Richard visibly shaken had run away from the room of his adoptive mother and from home.
it is inevitable the suspects pinn on him, although nobody understands because he would kill the adoptive mother; and especially how, since after he has gone, the mother had been poisoned, and not before. However soon Alleyn should begin to extricate himself from a forest of lies, of missed admissions and strange behaviors: first, though before they were very intimate, after the gala and before the death of Mary, Warrender and Richard on one side and the other Templeton refuse to see each other; Old Ninn suspects about Florence and Florence suspects about Old Ninn; Florence also suspects especially about  Richard; Gantry, Cavendish and Saracen would be excluded because they were first down and moreover had no knowledge of the environments of the house; Charles Templeton, the Mary’s husband after her death has collapsed and the doctor who had taken over the death of Mary, Dr. Harkness, who is the doctor of Templeton, assists him so that he doesn’t have other, more dangerous heart attacks.

Alleyn suspected it can not be anything other than a murder, supposition that Fox has already told him: it may have been an alternative an accident, but not suicide. In fact it is missing any letter of farewell, and the rest why would she do in the midst of an organized party by her for her triumph? Remain standing the two hypotheses of the crime and accident: the second assumption as far as possible, does not collect the sympathy of the two police officers. In fact, the insecticide that caused the actress' death was not simply sprayed but was sprayed closely, almost repeating with a continuous spray action. So we would fall in suicide, we eliminated with other reasoning. It follows that the only viable hypothesis is murder: only is missing the murderer. In fact the presence of the two women on the landing, unless you consider one between two the actual murderer, makes it impractical and impossible.
Roderick is therefore at an impasse.
Then there are things he doesn’t understand: on the vanity table was found a bunch of violets, flowers that the woman hated, and none of the invited states having brought, because everyone knew Bellamy did not like them; before death came, the phrase "That shows how much wrong you are. You can go away when you like, and the sooner you do it the better” pronounced aloud by actress so that everyone could hear, was heard in all the house: but which was it addressed to?
It was found in the study a paper copy of a letter  by Richard that he is determined to deny to have written and Roderick Alleyn rebuilds with his acumen; in the study of the house was found a book about the poisons, in which is marked the information  about  the Slaypest; Mary Bellamy, before to descend and to go to the guests, she had wanted Warrender  sprayed  the perfume Pinky had given her, in large quantity: why Warrender and not her husband? In addition, why on the dressing table was found the scent almost completely finished, when in occasion of the episode just mentioned, there was still a long way into the bottle?
And above all, how was perpetrated the murder, if murder it was?
What was the motive of the murder? Money? Would inherit her husband, who nevertheless is fabulously rich in his.  Jealousy? Her husband doted about his wife and to meet all her whims. Evil? Yes indeed. But wicked had become she, the victim. Again we are in fact faced with a victim who is more wicked than the killer, because the motive here is the rage, the pure hatred. However, resulted from a demonstration of the victim: if she had not behaved in a certain way, if she had not spilled a truth  for long time held within, the murderer would not suppressed her.
However, the greatest quid because you can get to identify the murderer is the weapo as well as the motive: what was the means used to kill the woman?
When Alleyn understands what it is, send it to forensics, which will ensure substantial traces of the insecticide. Obviously, at this point the investigation will go more smoothly forward, because the weapon acquisition will eliminate from the suspect’s list some people and more will be added. Until in a final twist, after it has been given to readers another red herring meal, Alleyn will reveal the name of the murderer.
Wonderful novel.
I am still amazed about the craftsmanship by Marsh  to be able to treat in a manner so wise many characters, giving each one its relief and its function: here, even those for the same action of the tragedy, and the stakes imposed by the script, not take an active part in the action criminal indeed,  and are driven out from the beginning, that’s Gantry, Cavendish and Saracen, have their own very specific part in defining the personality of Mary and her peculiarities as company executive: in fact, the shares Charles held at the beginning, these were, for his poor heart condition, transferred to his wife, fearing he to die and to leave, Mary without money. So is she to influence the company's decisions, and what looked like the tantrums and the sockets of Prima Donna position, at the end, for the attitude of Gantry, Cavendish and Saracen, and for the belated intervention of Montague Marchant, they are defined in the right light. And they have their importance in making lighten the contours of the drama also.
It 'a classic novel, always with a view of the novels of the Marsh: there is an introduction in which are presented the various characters of the drama, then the real action which details the action guidelines criminal; and here ends the first part. The second begins with the entrance of Alleyn and begins the investigation: is overshadowed a first offender and presented a first false herring, then  it focuses the attention on two other people, to get so to suggest that the killer might be another, before arriving to the identification of the real culprit. However the catharsis, like at any tragedy, here is not, or rather there is not a second final calmer: the second final here (the first has coincided with the killer's identification) coincides with the ceremony of the funeral, that unites husband and wife. And the novel ends with a sad note but of efficacy also.
Mike Grost, one of the largest American critics, calls it the Marsh masterpiece: "It combines a well constructed, intricate plot with a delightful look at theater people". I do not know if it's the best, but it certainly is one of the best. It has a very intricate plot, in which clues are by psicogical nature rather than real, and interestingly, it has a structure reminiscent of another novel based on a theatrical setting, but by Crispin: The Gilded Fly.  Even there, the victim who is the first woman, is a monster that can engulf and destroy all, until one of the many, a straw dog, that he would never do what he does if the monster had not caused him to anger, catches fire and defeat the monster. And the action until the crime is very similar, but with all the caveats: the murderer is different (his job), and therefore the investigation.
The feature, however, that seems to me most interesting is the heir's return, a feature that is typical of the classic British novels from Heyer to Christie, from Tey to Marsh, always peeping the element of the dual personality that therefore comes at the right time in the scene, influencing the resolution. Here the distinction lies in the fact that there is not the return of the heir, because the son is already acquired, but rather the return of the parents, the two Dakers, who believed dead, they were not at all. The beauty is that neither is the murderer, but just the appearance of the actual parents will unleash the anger and the killer’s hatred.
The murderess is basically a very human character: it’s as Ngaio Marsh apologized him, because, as in a lot of other novels by other authors, perhaps the murderer  is less guilty of his victim, and his own reprehensible actions (death with a poison like the tetraphosphate of esaetile is quick but extremely painful) at the bottom it is seen as a necessary action and derived from the Bellamy disturbed personality.  And never as in this novel, the murderer is the character less present and whose personality is the less pronounced among the whole park of the characters. It’s as a straw dog that catches fire but consumes himself, so the murderer as well as determining the other's destruction will complete his, wasting away.
A last note concerns the wickedness and caustic irony of Marsh in the fact of having chosen the Slaypest which weapon of death:  as Slaypest is used in the novel to eliminate the insects that could infest the azaleas, so Mary Bellamy is killed so that she doesn’t  infest the environment of those are around her: in substance Mary Bellamy is likened to an insect pest to eliminate. 

Pietro De Palma

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