Thursday, 3 August 2017

Spinsters in Jeopardy by Ngaio Marsh


published 1953



Spinsters in Jeopardy



When she awoke, it was to see a strange lady perched, like some fantastic fowl, on the balustrade near Ricky’s seat. Her legs, clad in scarlet pedal-pushers, were drawn up to her chin which was sunk between her knees. Her hands, jewelled and claw-like, with vermilion talons, clasped her shins, and her toes protruded from her sandals like branched corals. A scarf was wound around her skull Spinsters in Jeopardy 2and her eyes were hidden by sun-glasses in an enormous frame below which a formidable nose jutted over a mouth whose natural shape could only be conjectured. When she saw Troy was awake and on her feet she unfolded herself, dropped to the floor and advanced with a hand extended. She was six feet tall and about forty-five to fifty years old.



commentary: Jane Austen herself (never married, and ever aware of the financial disadvantages of that state) is not more horrified by older women than Ngaio Marsh. They can’t win. Another older lady in the book is described in disgusted detail, including this:
has no relations in the world and wears a string bag on her head

Spinsters in Jeopardy 3

This is, it would seem, a hairnet or snood, which is perfectly normal and was used by many women, as both Marsh and the (always alleged to be wonderfully charming and polite) Troy would know perfectly well.

The description of Miss Truebody’s sweat, grey hair, false teeth and missing eyebrows is pointless and unpleasant. She  is about 50, incidentally, like the one above.

But then the lady above, who might be thought to be making more of an effort, is equally not going to escape the beady Marsh eye – she is going to sunbathe and we are told that her
spinal vertebrae looked like those of a flayed snake.
She is ‘wildly and unpleasingly displayed’, she was ‘an uncomfortable spectacle.’ And then there are the ‘skull’ (why? why not head?) and talons above.

Marsh herself was 58 when his book was published. Her disdain for older women can be found throughout her books, and is not attractive.

As you may be guessing, I did not enjoy Spinsters in Jeopardy much. It is more of a thriller than a murder story – Inspector Alleyn, his wife Troy and their appalling son Ricky are travelling in the south of France, and get caught up with nefarious goings-on in a mysterious chateau. It starts something like Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington: a serious-looking event glimpsed from a train. There are two clear villains, whom we are invited to disapprove of from the first moment. Her general disapproval (of men and ladies) is very wearing: she chooses these people to write about (and they are cartoons) and then tells us how awful they are: nice people like the Alleyns will shudder.

I couldn’t get interested in the plot, but became increasingly infuriated by the Alleyn family. The awful inspector is now revealed as someone who can administer anaesthetics for an operation on the kitchen table, and then suddenly tells us that he is also an amateur poet (Inspector Dalgliesh, you were pre-owned). Troy is our Greatest Living Artist, but frightfully modest, so in this book the wealthy art collector turns out to have one of her pictures in the library (a repeated and excruciating trope in the books). The picture is of the unspeakable Ricky, a baby-talking and horrible child. At one point he is in jeopardy: I felt free to wish him out of the plot for longer, at the very least.

Marsh can be so funny and clever and satirical, but there is very little evidence of it in this book. I liked this: there is talk of wicked rituals, and a description of a cloth:
‘There were other things in the pattern that one does not see in altar cloths.’  
‘The hoof prints of Anathema!’ Raoul ejaculated.
And there is a splendid description of the shop that sells self-illuminating statues, including a Christmas nativity scene:
Old Marie shouted: ‘Look, Mademoiselle, the Holy Child illuminates himself. And the beasts! One would say the she-ass almost burst herself with good milk. And the lamb is infinitely touching. And the ridiculous price! I cannot bring myself to charge more. It is an act of piety on my part.’
I have been working my way through the books, and wonder if it is mostly downhill from here? I’ve already blogged on the next one, Scales of Justice, surely a return to form, but after that? Any Ngaio Marsh fans (looking at you Lucy Fisher) who can tell me if there are good ones left?

Lady in red pedal pushers, and lady in headscarf both from Kristine’s photostream.

The snood is from the Library of Congress, she is a Rosie the Riveter, wearing a net for health and safety reasons.






















26 comments:

  1. Totally agree with you. This book is awful! Possibly Marsh's worst from what I have read of hers. Plot is just preposterous and you can't really get behind any of the characters. Also agree that Scales of Justice is a much better book and is one of my favourite Marsh novels, along with the controversial Surfeit of Lampreys. SOJ has great characters and also has one of her strongest puzzles.

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    1. It's definitely the worst one I've read. So strange when she can do it so well, and Scales of Justice was the next one...

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  2. This is definitely not Marsh at her best, Moira, is it? And it's interesting how her work can be a bit uneven that way. The ageism in the book is definitely there (even in the title), and I couldn't agree with you more about the lack of wit (usually an important quality of a Marsh novel). Oh, well, I suppose they can't all be perfect...

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    1. Yes indeed, uneven is the word. This is one to put away and forget, I won't be re-reading it ever.

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  3. The earlier Death in Ecstasy is a better attempt at satirising tiny cults that prey on their adherents. She's recycled the idea in this one. Yes, I agree with you about her cruelty to older women, though the one described above turns out to be rather admirable. And Ricky is utterly appalling. Oh dear, oh dear! I also can't stand her patronising depiction of the heroic chauffeur and his girlfriend, who speak broken English. They are beautiful, but have dirty feet and "stuffy" bedrooms.

    Try Clutch of Constables, though there is a caricatured elderly lady in it. (She's about 15 years younger than me.)

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    1. They are SO British-abroad, I wish it was satire. I meant to mention their oddity in tipping. Raoul gets offered 500 francs for helping with an operation. concierge gets 1000, for no reason at all. 500 francs for a woman to take a message, 200 for a normal tip.
      Will get to Clutch soon...

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  4. Light Thickens, her final book is set in the theater and as usual her depiction of putting on a play is interesting. The theatrical intrigue is more interesting than the murder but I enjoyed the book. Her second to last book, Photo Finish, does I fear feature a not-young unsympathetic lady but on the whole I enjoyed it. It is set in New Zealand, which is always fun.

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    1. Thanks, they both sound interesting: I don't need a great crime plot if the setting is good...

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    2. In Photo Finish she is very acid about opera. Troy is drawing the singers at rehearsals, and wonders why singing makes people look grotesque. There's a beautiful (closed) setting, and a friendly singing teacher, but that's about all.

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    3. Oh well I love anything about opera, even being rude, and even if not very good...

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  5. I still haven't read a Ngaio Marsh since Night at the Vulcan, in 2012. I wanted to read through the second half of the series but now I am not sure I ever will (or should). When I do finally read one, I need to pick one that you and Lucy like.

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    1. Scales of Justice shines out for me from the 2nd half of her career, but Lucy is the real expert! She has really useful lists of the Marsh books on her blog, with a couple of lines on each book.

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    2. Night at the Vulcan - Opening Night in the UK - is one of her best. Perhaps THE best. If you liked that one, you might like "Scales"! Or Death at the Dolphin.

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    3. I second Lucy's choices. I also very much liked 2 of the NZ-set ones: Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool.

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  6. Elizabeth Tierney4 August 2017 at 04:22

    I wrote an utterly brilliant comment, but WordPress was not impressed and it was lost to posterity. In short, I completely agree with you about Spinsters in Jeopardy. I tried to read it and also to listen to it, but I couldn't get through it. I find her books hard to re-read although I loved many of them 20 years ago.I wonder if the string bag crack was a jab at Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver?

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    1. So sorry about the comment! When I was a comment editor I used to suggest to people, when they complained about losing them, that they write them out first then post. But, I was thinking 'as if anyone would actually do that in real life.'
      Interesting suggestion about Wentworth...

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  7. Sorry: I remember little about this one except that, when I read it decades ago, I thought it was very good indeed. It's feasible that, when I reread the book to discover if my younger self was an idiot, I'll revise my opinion on this one, but so far, as I've reread Marsh, exactly the opposite has been true.

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    1. I think I pretty much have reversed my opinions - the ones I disliked years ago I quite like now, and vice versa. I guess to a fan of thrillers this one might be more attractive?

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  8. The mixture of Marsh that I've read doesn't include this one, and it sounds like I had a narrow escape (you suffer so that we don't have to!). She can be very good, but of the big 4 Golden Age Female crime writers I think that she was the weakest.

    It's intersting to compare her attitude to old women with the others. Allingham is always rather gushing about Grand Dames in her earlier books, whereas Christie is very clear sighted about the elderly (Marple may be the heroine of several stories, but she's also terrifying). Sayers is pretty much the same way. The Alleyn family are pretty horrible, never, ever feeling like a real family unit. Allingham's (and later Mike Ripley's) Campion family outings are much more fun because they do feel much more like people that you would like to meet.

    ggary

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    1. Old ladies in GA fiction! There's a topic I could read or write to death.
      Nearly all children in adult novels of the era are pretty dire, but you are right, give me the Campion family any day.

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    2. Spot on about Allingham, Belle and Aunt Caroline! Though poor Donna Beatrice is a figure of fun.

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    3. In Christie they are always subordinate to the needs of the plot - might be nice, might be nasty, but its detection driven, not because AC wants to tell you what to think.

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  9. There should be a Marsh exchange, like for Marmite ... :)

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    1. I keep thinking I'll find the right Marsh to recommend to you, Sergio, but am giving up hope...

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  10. Avoid, though I will try her one day. Not this one though.

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    1. Although this one is more thriller-esque than GA village crime, so might almost be more to your taste...

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