Sunday, November 14, 2021

Ngaio Marsh : The Nursing Home Murder, 1935


The novel is in my opinion, one of the most interesting ever by the New Zealand writer, for various reasons, and moreover it enjoyed great popularity at the time, so much so that Agatha Christie had this novel read by one of her characters of Murder in Mesopotamia. I don't know if A Man Lay Dead had influenced with his idea of a house surrounded by frozen snow, on Ten Little Niggers (and after all Carr / Carter Dickson had already written in 1934, The White Priory Murders), but in my opinion Nursing Home Murder may have influenced, at least as a basic idea of the murdered ruler, Anthony Berkeley for Death in the House (1939).


 Sir Derek O ’Callaghan is the Minister of the Interior. He is about to pass a law against anarchists, and since he began to develop his action against them, he has received several death threats. He is tough and energetic, but he is not a saint's shin. Although he is married to Lady Cicely O ’Callaghan, when he has the chance he cuckolds her. The latest of his victims is the daughter of an old family friend, Jane Harden, of a fallen noble family, who is a nurse at the private clinic of Sir John Phillips, a famous surgeon. She tricked her into thinking he was in love with her, got her pregnant and then abandoned her. Moreover, Phillips who had asked her to marry her, this time really, sees in front of him a woman destroyed by the shame of having believed in the powerful minister and of passing for an easy girl who is not at all, who would also marry him but who is in a difficult situation.

It so happens that during a session in Parliament in which the government in the person of the Minister of the Interior is illustrating the measure against the anarchists, O’Callaghan feels ill and faints from an appendix that he has neglected. And that he be taken to the clinic of his family doctor who is Phillips, to be operated on. But not only Phillips, who is the primary physician, and Harden work there, but also Nurse Banks, a passionate Bolshevik supporter, Dr. Thoms (Phillips' assistant) and Dr. Roberts (anesthetist) whose political sympathies also seem to be addressed. they to the Bolsheviks / anarchists, Nurse Graham, and Sister Marigold, who is the Superior of the John Phillips Clinic. John Phillips would like another surgeon to operate on the patient but Callaghan's wife wants him to take care of it. Thus it happens that Fate, just like in a Greek tragedy, because what happens in the operating room is a tragedy, confronts the one who caused so many evils, at the mercy of various people who more or less would have excellent reasons to send him to the other world, killing him . After the operation went well in itself, resolving the appendicitis abscess that caused peritonitis, Sir Derek dies. Immediately it is thought that it was the heart, and in fact during the operation Dr. Roberts, separated from the others by a curtain placed on the patient's chest, had warned that the patient was responding badly and the pressure was dropping, and for this reason he had been made an injection of camphor oil. But under pressure from Lady Cicely O'Callaghan, who turns to Scotland Yard, the case is reopened and an autopsy is authorized which discovers how the Prime Minister was poisoned with sixteen centigrams of Joscina, an anelgesic that Phillips for example uses inject. , in the dose of seven milligrams, to patients before the operation, to reduce the use of morphine and other analgesics. The fact is that it is not clear how sixteen centigrams which is a huge dose, the dose of an entire tube made up of twenty discoid Joscina, each of seven milligrams, plus some other discoid, ended up in Sir Derek's body. .

John Phillips was seen to open a new tube and remove a discoid (and in fact there are still 19 in the tube) and administer it in the form of a hypodermic injection to the patient; but Phillips had drifted away for a moment. And there is the story of a second tube that he says was already empty, but which may have been used together with the other discoid. And someone saw that he used too much distilled water. In short, Phillips is the main suspect, even if there is no evidence that it was him. And on the other hand, during the operation three injections were made: that of Phillips, who injected 7 milligrams of hyoscine (he says!), That of the nurse Banks (of anarchist sympathies) who used a hypodermic syringe to inject camphor oil (since Roberts has not given injections since he had caused the death of a patient years ago by giving an injection), and that of Dr. Thoms who injected concentrated antitoxin gangrene gas through a large syringe. Basically, any of these three may have killed Callaghan. Then there is also the suspicious behavior of Harden, who despite not having given injections, had hesitated to give the syringe with camphor oil, and then later passed out.

Alleyn, will have to investigate, including meetings of Bolsheviks and stalking of various suspects, and other people, also on another medicine based on hyoscine, "Fulvitavolts", served to the patient by his sister, Ruth O'Callaghan, concerned about the health of the brother (but heir to a third of his brother's money!), but prepared by a chemist, very friend of the lady, and at the same time also a Bolshevik sympathizer: in essence, Alleyn suspects that this substance served up before the operation, perhaps in a large quantity, even by accident, could then have been combined with that injected to the point of causing the death of the Minister of the Interior. The problem is everything, to demonstrate how a disproportionate amount of hyoscine has been served up to the patient without anyone noticing, because essentially all those who have operated on each other apologize, having seen what the others were doing. Eventually he will find the killer he killed through a very ingenious procedure and with an absolutely unusual weapon.


The novel is extremely interesting, I would say that in the production of Marsh, it is one of the most interesting of all.

That it is one of the first novels, as evidenced by the group of actors of the drama, which identifies precisely the first production of Ngaio Marsh. As in the novels of A. Christie with Poirot, the first novels are distinguishable from the others because the Cap. Hastings moves there and then disappears in the continuation of the production, returning only at the end with Curtain (but there are also some novels distinguished from the others for the presence of Ariadne Oliver), and as well as eg. the wonderful decade of Ellery Queen is distinguished from the rest of his production by the constant presence, even if only in the preface, by JJMcClure, so varied only the figures of Roderick Alleyn's favorite "shoulder": in the first novels we have Nigel Bathgate, his journalist friend (together with his girlfriend Angela North), who then disappears to make room for Inspector Fox already present in the first but more muted (appears for the first time in Enter a Murderer, the second novel), which characterizes the following novels with his verve at times comic, and which while always remaining, fades at a certain point, to make room in the role of favorite shoulder to the figure of Agatha Troy, wife of Alleyn and painter. Basically we have (taking into account that in other novels also figures such as Sergeants Thompson and Bailey appear)

Novels with Nigel Bathgate: A Man Lay Dead; Enter a Murderer; The Nursing Home Murder; Death in Ecstasy; Artists in Crime; Death in a White Tie; Overture to Death; Surfeit of Lampreys; Final Curtain; Swing, Brother, Swing A Man Lay Dead.

Novels with Inspector Fox: Enter a Murderer; The Nursing Home Murder; Death in Ecstasy; Artists in Crime; Overture to Death; Death at a Bar; Surfeit of Lampreys; Death and the Dancing Footman; Final Curtain; Swing, Brother, Swing; Opening Night; Scales of Justice; Off With His Head; False Scent; Hand in Glove; Dead Water; Clutch of Constables; Tied Up in Tinsel; Black As He’s Painted; Last Ditch; Grave Mistake; Light Thickens.

Novels with Agatha Troy: Artists in Crime; Death in a White Tie; Death and the Dancing Footman; Final Curtain; Swing, Brother, Swing; Spinsters in Jeopardy;  Hand in Glove; Dead Water; Tied Up in Tinsel; Black As He’s Painted; Last Ditch; Grave Mistake; Photo-finish.

First of all, the novel, given its peculiarity, that is the faithful reconstruction of an operation, and much of the novel's charm is due precisely to the fidelity of the surgical steps, was written by Ngaio Marsh, but with the collaboration of Henry Jellet, famous Irish gynecologist of the time then Obstetric Surgeon at the New Zealand Department of Health (whose collaboration is attested) and of Sir Hugh Acland. Joanne Drayton talks about this second collaboration, not attested as co-author in her essay Ngaio Marsh : Her Life in Crime, Harper-Collins,2009 : “The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan, dies of a lethal dose of hyoscine administered on the operating table. Because she needed medical knowledge, Ngaio took on her only collaborator, Irish surgeon Dr Henry Jellett. She also consulted Sir Hugh Acland. Both men were her specialists while she was in hospital..” (page 61).

Basically, in 1934, Ngaio was diagnosed with uterine cancer, and was operated on in the gynecological division of the hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the two surgeons operated. She was probably operated on by both or only by Jellet whom she called "Papa Jellet", as a friend of her father. She then made use of the two surgeons when creating the plot of a detective novel developed around an operating table. Acland and Jellet were then consulted, following the release of the novel which was immediately a success, to stage a play, entitled Exit Sir Derek, in which Acland distinguished himself for the maniacal writing of details: the simulated surgical operation. in theatrical work, it even seemed true to many, so much did Acland care for the part. Exit Sir Derek was performed in the small theater of the University of Cambridge in England, probably in 1937, when she visited the United Kingdom.

As we know Ngaio Marsh was famous not only as a successful writer but also and above all as a theater director, indeed it was for the popularity acquired with the Theater that she was awarded the title of D. B.E. (Dame of British Empire). And theater in one way or another enters many of her novels. Even in this. Because the operating room is often referred to as a theater (and in ancient times it was, operating the surgeons at the center and assisting the students from above, like a stage surrounded and surmounted by galleries). But in this case, the Operating Room (with the antisales: that of narcosis and the one where you sterilize and dress before the operation), refers to the proscenium and the stage, and to the parascene of classical theater. Classical theater in which tragedies were primarily represented. And what tragedy is more so than this, in which in an operating theater the actors of a tragedy, the powerful tyrant (the operated patient) and surgeons and nurses all with their motives to hate or suppress him act? Moreover, it is said in a specific passage of the novel: in Chapter III, there is a dialogue between Phillips and Jane Harden, and she specifically refers to Tragedy, Fate and Vendetta (Nemesis):

"Jane," said Phillips.
"This--this is a queer business."
"Nemesis, perhaps," said Jane Harden.
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing," she said drearily. "Only it is rather like a Greek play, don't
you think? 'Fate delivers our enemy into our hands


Another feature of the novel are the frequent political digressions, more present than in other novels. Rather than focusing the novel's attention on an evil deviance of the criminal, the murderer, The Nursing Home Murder focuses it on the allegedly deviant ideas of a political group, which proclaims its aversion to the bourgeois state and to those who caused death for malnutrition of urban workers and underclass: the anarchists. Having taken this particular political subject as an example in the course of the novel characterizes it as belonging to another time. There are various moments in which he talks about it. There is for example Alleyn's servant, Vassily who knows something:


Vassily," said Alleyn, "do you ever see anything of your disreputable pals--The Pan-Soviet Brotherhood, or whatever they were--nowadays?"
"No, sir. Not now am I such a foolish old rascal. I am one bite too shy."
"So I should hope, you old donkey. You don't happen to remember hearing any gossip about Nicholas Kakaroff?"
Vassily crossed himself lavishly from right to left. "Hospodi bozhe moy! He is one of the most worst of them," he said energetically. "A bad fellow. Before the Soviet he was young and anything but conserff-a-tiff. After the Soviet he was older and always up to no-good. The Soviet pleased him no better than the Romanoffs. So sometimes he was killing officials, and at last he has heated up Russia for himself too much, so has come to England"(Chapter VI).  


The high points are when Nurse Banks and chemist Sage are being questioned. Nurse "Bolshie" Banks's passionate speeches against capitalism introduce an evil ideology, which is an expression of a belief against the status quo. Questioned first by Marigold, she exclaims: “And for that reason he's the more devilish," announced Banks with remarkable venom. "He's done murderous things since he's been in office. Look at his Casual Labour Bill of last year. He's directly responsible for every death from under-nourishment that has occurred during the last ten months. He's the enemy of the proletariat. If I had my way he'd be treated as a common murderer or else as a homicidal maniac. He ought to be certified. There is insanity in his blood. Everybody knows his father was dotty. That's what I think of your Derek O'Callaghan with a title bought with blood- money (Chapter III).

When questioned by Alleyn, she will say:

You may stand there with a smile on your lips," she stormed, "but you won't smile for long. I know your type--the gentleman policeman--the latest development of the capitalist system. You've got where you are by influence while better men do bigger work for a slave's pittance. You'll go, and all others like you, when the Dawn breaks. You think I killed Derek O'Callaghan. I didn't, but I'll tell you this much--I should be proud--proud, do you hear, if I had (Chapter IX).

But the invectives against a bourgeois society destined to be supplanted by the proletariat are also those of the chemist Harold Sage, perhaps less livid and bitter:

As a matter of fact," continued Mr. Sage, "I must own I don't go as far as Comrade Kakaroff in the matter of O'Callaghan's death. Undoubtedly it is well he is gone. I realise that theoretically there is such a thing as justifiable extermination, but murder--as this may have been--no." (Chapter  XIII).

Basically Sage who is a young communist chemist, protected by Ruth O'Callaghan, Derek's sister, and therefore in a certain sense (not quite) close to Kakaroff's ideas, while admitting that Callaghan's death was a gift done to the working class, for what he was doing to it, and that the mass extermination of the enemies of the working class could be shared (in a revolutionary situation), murder is not as much.

As we can see, Bolsheviks and anarchists are not the same thing, and are distinct. Nurse Banks, who is an expression of the popular malcoltage of an exploited band, is related to Kakaroff, without making a distinction between communism and anarchy, while there is a basic distinction. In essence, anarchists are initially exploited as an anti-tsarist force but then when power is consolidated in the hands of the Bolsheviks, the anarchists with their nihilistic strength are kept away and persecuted, because they represent a threat to the status quo. So in essence the CCCP and the United Kingdom, as an expression of power, are opposed by anarchists. However, from what is clear from the novel, if anarchists were really in an antithetical position to power and violently opposed it, they would not gather in the sunlight in halls, advertising it everywhere. And the sister of the Minister of the Interior, however wild she may be, would not protect those who hate her brother. Kakaroff's anarchist expression is therefore an antithetical movement by now on the facade, made up of people that the central power knows and protects itself from, who growls but do not bite, and who in essence therefore convey the negative energies of the population in a less violent. Moreover, if Kakaroff had really been antithetical to the British central power, he would never have found political asylum, fleeing from the Bolsheviks.

Another interesting point of the novel is that which concerns the sterilization of the morons, of those who have family defects and inherit them. Dr. Roberts is a champion of sterilization if not the extermination of morons. He talks about it with Alleyn at his house:

There need not necessarily be any usual motive." Roberts hesitated and then spoke with more assurance than he had shown so far. "In suggesting this," he said, "I may be accused of mounting my special hobbyhorse. As you have seen, I am greatly interested in hereditary taints. In Sir Derek O'Callaghan's family there is such a taint. In his father, Sir Blake O'Callaghan, it appeared. I believe he suffered at times from suicidal mania. There has been a great deal of injudicious inbreeding. Mark you, I am perfectly well aware that the usual whole-hearted condemnation of inbreeding is to be revised in the light-- " He had lost all his nervousness. He lectured Alleyn roundly for ten minutes, getting highly excited. He quoted his own works and other authorities. He scolded the British public, in the person of one of their most distinguished policemen, for their criminal neglect of racial problems”

Moreover, during the operation, Doctor Thoms, making fun of the anesthetist's studies, and Callaghan's alleged defects, had said:

"He's a striking-looking chap, isn't he?" he remarked lightly. "Curious head. What do you make of it, Roberts? You're a bit of a dog at that sort of  thing, aren't you? Read your book the other day. There's insanity somewhere in the racial makeup here, isn't there? Wasn't his old man bats?" Roberts looked scandalised. "That is so," he said stiffly, "but one would hardly expect to find evidence of racial insanity clearly denned in the facial structure, Mr. Thoms”. (Chapter IV) Basically, from the shape of the skull one could have hypothesized a hereditary defect in the Minister of the Interior.

And then Alleyn comments separately:

“It sounds reasonable enough, Fox, and certainly consistent with Roberts's character. With his views on eugenics he'd be sure to support sterilization. You don't need to be a Bolshie to see the sense of it, either”. (Chapter XV).

Dr. Roberts was also seen at the Kakaroff Rally. It is not known if he too is a subversive, but he is sure that he rather went there because probably someone has pledged support for his crusade. After all, Roberts' crusade did not arise without a triggering cause, which are Mendel's studies on heredity and Galton and Pearson's proposal in England that the state should monitor procreation, preventing that of sick individuals. Now if this is true, one does not remember a Bolshevik eugenics except that which aimed to eliminate the inequalities of the capitalist system thus giving free development to the individual as such. What we remember instead in the 1930s is a National Socialist eugenics, aimed at sterilizing (ordered by the Nazi regime on July 14, 1933) if not at eliminating the diverse and the sick especially of genetic diseases capable of corrupting the pure Aryan race. What comes to mind is that Ngaio Marsh, as a transference, has poured the paternity of this crazy eugenics onto the anarchists, not being able to mock ideas referring to National Socialism which in 1935 enjoyed great sympathies in England.

The interesting features of this novel do not end there. In fact, there is one more thing to talk about: the novel is not mentioned in any text as a novel with an "impossible" crime, yet it is. It is already the second case in which, for novels by Ngaio Marsh, we notice this characteristic.

 I had already talked about it for its debut, and in that case (A Man Lay Dead, 1934) I had mentioned the fact that that novel could also have been a hidden Impossible Murder. Why? In the course of the novel, at a certain point, it is specified that no other person, from the outside, could have committed Rankin's murder, because the house had been isolated by a snowfall that had enveloped the surrounding countryside, for more than frozen. . Well, here too we have a hidden impossible murder, even more so. Let me explain.

That Marsh was not interested in being remembered as a writer of novels with impossible crimes, was testified by that first novel, which had all the canonical cornerstones of the impossible crime, even if then no one emphasized its impossibility or rather, while highlighting it , did not exalt it as such. In this case, while in the first, Ngaio underlines at a certain point that the murderer was at home even if it seemed impossible, because it was surrounded by frozen snow, and in essence the house is like an island surrounded from the sea (the reference is to Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie, five years later), not even here Ngaio Marsh uses the term "impossibility", even if the novel bears the stigmata everywhere: three injections were made but none he may have killed the Minister of the Interior and in theory he could have taken medications containing hyoscine in such quantities as to legitimize the quantity ascertained after autopsy but this is evidently not the case: yet 16 centigrams of hyoscine were found in his body, an amount such as to surely kill a man (15 would have been amply enough). How was it administered? Even a neophyte would understand that there are all the prerequisites for talking about impossible murder, impossible poisoning, yet .. Ngaio Marsh doesn't talk about it. The impossibility of this poisoning, which is solved only by finding the weapon used, is revealed at the end of the novel: in essence, in this case we have a reversal of what is a classic impossible murder. While in the canonical impossible murder (Wynne, Carr, Halter, Boileau. Vindy) we have a crime that is defined as impossible from the beginning, and that will be solved only by explaining how it could have been carried out, and therefore associating the solution of Howdunnit with the 'murderer, here we have a crime that is never defined as impossible, but which appears as such only at the end, when discovering its "impossible" weapon (a syringe of a special shape, with a piston that is easily confused with another thing), the killer is also discovered. In other words, the assumption behind the discovery of the murderer would not be: the murderer could be X if the impossibility were Y, but if the impossibility is Y, the murderer is certainly X because only he could use that weapon.


Pietro De Palma

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