Friday, August 30, 2013

A Shadow Locked Room: "A Man Lay Dead", by Ngaio Marsh (1934)

Today I will discuss a novel by Ngaio Marsh, an outstanding essay writing and genius.
A Man Lay Died, is her first work. It was published in 1934.
It 'a jumble of ideas, each in itself interesting: ancient weapons and bloody, secret societies, three Russians who plot and a crime inexplicable. Ideas that strangely created confusion but instead are blended beautifully. The fact is however that in this case we are dealing with one of the major writers of the 900 is not only famous for his crime novels but also for his work in theater. In fact, I can say, without fear of being contradicted, that this his first novel, a play that is both a detective novel: it has such a high level of performance and representation, to be left stunned. And there is such a level of orchestration, with attention to detail, do not leave disappointed.
Sir Hubert Handesley is famous for his festivals, unforgettable. He called this time his niece Angela North; Charles Rankin a man old 46-47 years,  inveterate Playboy; Nigel Bathgate, cousin of Rankin and gossip reporter; Rosamund Grant, a great beautiful woman; and finally Arthur Wilde archaeologist, and his wife Marjorie. The aim of the festival is to organize a Cluedo Party. We must first choose a murderer, who will choose the victim. Once communicated his decision, the victim will have to play dead and the others will - within a time limit - discover the murderer.
The fact is that not everything goes as it should: in other words, after the murderer hit, the dead remains .. really dead! Charles Rankin, who had made ​​the mistake of trying at all costs to make themselves obnoxious (mocking Arthur Wilde in public, literally putting it in his underwear; teasing the two women Marjorie and Rosamund, both in love with him, and one of them, Marjorie faithless, having an extramarital relationship with him; antagonizing Dr. Tokareff, physician russian, part of a secret society, due to an ancient mongolian dagger, which now owns Rankin but that first belonged to the secret society of which Tokareff is one of the affiliates, and on top of that he had promised, in case of death: £ 3000 to Arthur Wilde and the dagger to  Sir Hubert Handesley, well-known collector of antique weapons), now lies on the ground, with his mongolian dagger frame in the back, at an angle so the same heart remained transfixed.
Soon, the Inspector Roderick Alleyn , scion of an aristocratic family , who works in the police more to satisfy his passion than for nothing else , enters at the scene , faced with a seemingly insoluble problem : all persons are protected from accusations , since each of them is protected by the statements of at least one of the other guests, if not by the personal servitude. Someone has to have killed Charles Rankin ! Yet from the evidence , all the authors of the play would be impossible to have committed the murder : someone was in the bathtub , another sang loudly on the other side of the house, who had been seen elsewhere servitude . The only person who seems to be more at risk is Rosamund , whose alibi was contradicted by a waitress.
Meanwhile, however, can be seen , along with the central subplot , other minor subplots : the secret society ; the ancient and cursed dagger, the escape of the butler , Vassily , who was also Russian; the seemingly disconnected death of a Polish in Soho . Then come some evidence : a glove burned in the fireplace, the fluff of a black fur attached to a gate of the courtyard , a mysterious letter .
And the central story is linked to a plot of a secret society , torture , investigations rather than by Alleyn , for whom is reserved the role of " deus ex machina " , by the same Nigel in love ( requited love ) with the beautiful Angela North . It’s  as if the Marsh , here did the dress rehearsal for her unforgotten stories , detective stories that intertwine to sentimental items (the story of Agatha Troy , painter , with Roderick Alleyn , Inspector of Police but also Lord : in fact , in a drama that was built on this story , Angela North who falls in love reciprocated by Nigel Bathgate , was replaced by Agatha Troy , present in most of the other stories by Marsh) .
It may have been Tokareff to assassinate Rankin , to regain possession of the dagger , improperly detained by Rankin ? Or the master of the house to grab a precious object ? Or the same Wilde to get hold of £ 3000 ( but he would need ) ? Or were the two women , Marjorie or Rosamund to kill him in revenge for having been used by him ? Or the same Angela or Nigel , for obscure reasons ?
Someone rang the gong , when the murder was committed : why to draw the attention of those present ? Why did it go off the light? Who could have hit behind Rankin , tall enough to reach the panoply in which it was placed the dagger , to grasp and to hit behind Rankin , who was preparing a cocktail , without him noticing?
And above all, how did he do, taking into account that everyone (except Rosamund , but she is not the murderer ) have an unassailable alibi ?
Alleyn , with an exploit and a solution to be left open-mouthed , will be able to stop the murderer.
Already with this his first novel, with the publication of which Ngaio Marsh was fully accepted as part of the group Crime Queen (made up Christie , Sayers and Allingham ) , Ngaio Marsh outlined his narrative technique that would make school: the first, there’s part in which  the authors and the place of the drama are presented, the skirmishes take place between them, and is usually presented and classified the hypothetical victim , almost always unpleasant enough to be able to concentrate on himself the wrath of the present . Then there is the crime and enters the Inspector Alleyn who begins to gather the clues , to build the evidence. Finally Alleyn nails , during the spectacular final, the unsuspected murderess to his (her) responsibilities .

It could be a "Shadow Locked Room", a hidden Locked Room . Why? In the course of the novel, at some point, it is stated that no other person, from the outside, he could commit the murder of Rankin, because the house had been isolated from a snowfall that had shrouded the surrounding countryside, for more then frozen. So if Ten Little Niggers by Agatha Christie would be a Locked Room, as some believe, because the crimes take place on an island, then even this novel by Ngaio Marsh can be ascribed to the list of Locked Rooms.
I called this novel Shadow Locked Room, because the author, while referring specifically to the question of the insulation of the house, apparently had not considered to envisage the problem as a Locked Room itself. Nevertheless, it is.
All the novels have this succession of moments always well cadenced , already present in this first novel, in which , it should be said , the bulk of the investigation is not done by the inspector , but by the reporter. It happens that , what we read in the first adventure of Merrivale by Carter Dickson : the arrival on the scene , carefully studied , by the character present in all the novels of the writer , who has a function of real deus ex-machina , who solves the puzzle , starting from clues in itself without substance.
Ngaio Marsh outlines here what it will be the typical character by the British school , differentiating it from the American, as part of the Crime Fiction: before the crime there’s always (or almost ) a kind of introduction that describes the characters and outline the actions of the drama , and after the murder , instead, enters at the scene the detective who solves the problem.
Many are the authors who stick to this traditional way of presenting the story : for example another very classic writer, Georgette Heyer .
John Dickson Carr instead although working in the thirties in England, he differs radically , because he is American : all or most Americans writers begin the story with the crime , and only after they explain the background .
We also note another characteristic that unites rather strangely Marsh to fiction American environment ( but it will happen to Christianna Brand for other reasons ) , especially the vandinian environment , indicating that it is not true Van Dine not have proselytes or developers also in the British school : Alleyn is an aristocrat as Vance ; stories almost always contain the bizarre details ; crimes if they are not impossible , just missing us ! ; environments are formally limited , and there are always references to art, theater, to collecting;  Alleyn is a policeman , such as Michael Lord  by Daly King or Thatcher Colt by Anthony Abbott .
Yet another thing rebranded : the presence of more subplots , which in itself is also not directly connected to the crime , however, have the advantage of messing up the situation , distracting the audience from the real goal of the stage : to frame the killer. Marsh also often says some things , which are then contradicted by others things, and explained in different ways , before suggesting the possible culprit , then freeing him from the accusations and finally coming back on it and nailing it to his responsibilities .
With a history that has the traits sometimes of the spy story ( the pro- Bolshevik conspiracy ) , sometimes of the thriller and hardboiled story , with a policeman and Nigel prisoners of the Russians, beaten and tortured with pins under nails , but most of the pure mystery , Ngaio Marsh is fascinating, giving us an extraordinary novel in intensity , but delicious at the same time for the lightness of the plant and the diversity of the items in section: like a consummate conductor - but here she is on her debut ! - Ngaio Marsh manages to give body to different movements , to give voices to different instrumental sections , without ever losing sight of the assembly and detail .
At the same time , sketches out a story in the story : a Clue for the reader , which uses the Cluedo as a base for staging narrative , applying ideas of other writers also : several critics have made it clear how the torture and the criminals to postpone stories by Wallace, while for me, the crime explained in terms of seconds (time) , it makes me think of certain novels by Crofts , based on unassailable alibi which are then exposed ( as here).
Finally, as remarked in all her stories , Ngaio Marsh , endlessly repeating , in all the variations , her construction stage of the story, based on three sections marked regularly and continuously,  applies her face in a narrative context , a technique that at the early nineteenth century , it was an expression of the most classical instrumental music : three sections, linked together , changed countless times, according to the musical themes (often operas and arias ) by numerous authors: an Introduction , in which the issue is framed action , a Theme and Variations in which the action takes places in various ways, a Final , often virtuosic , in which the action ends up in a cathartic release.
Is it possible Ngaio Marsh did draw up the construction of his stories from a compositional technique typical of the early nineteenth century music, of Biedermeier era ? In my opinion it is quite possible , especially knowing the Biedermeier , which otherwise evolves in other musical forms and developments , in England remains , for the longest time , connected to the shape of the monarchy , which ends up elsewhere , but here it remains intact. It is no coincidence that the Marsh society , more often than not , is aristocratic , viewed in his vision more conservative, because it is not lived: Ngaio Marsh , from New Zealand , she  becomes more British than the British writers such as Edmund Crispin or Nicholas Blake, who instead tend to break away from the more typically conservative narrative of English, offering stories who instead approach them to non-UK members .
The opposite accident of what happens in the case of Ngaio Marsh

Pietro De Palma


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  2. I'm glad you seemed to enjoy this book. I have seen reviews of a few of her works on other Mystery blogs, and people appear to find her works "too slow" with endless "talking to suspects." I can see where people might think of them as slow, but if you consider that they are really more police procedurals, her story telling choices make more sense.

    I've read all of her novels, and while there are a few that aren't my cup of tea, I enjoy most of them, and re-read those frequently.

  3. Ngaio Marsh was a woman but you use 'he' and 'his' most of the time through the piece.