A Man Lay Dead, Ngaio Marsh

A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead

In hindsight, rereading Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead directly after Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair might have been a mistake.  Stylistically, the two do not compare: Tey is by far the better stylist, and her characters have much more depth than Marsh’s.

It’s a bit of an unfair comparison, though, for several reasons.  First, A Man Lay Dead was Marsh’s first novel, whereas Tey was well into her career with The Franchise Affair.  And they’re two distinctly different types of mysteries, and written at different points during that time known as The Golden Age—the Marsh book is over 10 years earlier, at a time when Agatha Christie was in full reign over the British Crime novel.  So it’s really very much an apples and oranges kind of comparison.  Still, it’s a fact that the far more sparse Marsh left me wanting, following on the heels of the Tey as it did.  And that’s too bad, because I really like Ngaio Marsh as a whole—she’s a great plotter with a theatrical flair to her mysteries that’s entertaining.  But again, in hindsight (that useful creature!), she’s obviously struggling to find her way in this first effort.

The plot of A Man Lay Dead is fairly simple: a country house party, a game of Murder, a real dead body instead of pretend.  There’s a side order of bolshie Russians causing trouble, several women scorned, the intrepid BYT, and, of course, the enigmatic Roderick Alleyn in his first appearance in print.  As plots go, it’s pretty standard stuff—the country house mystery had been done prior to this, and the Russians, the BYT, the tom-cat victim and his various women are all familiar types in a mystery of this era.  In as far as those things go, nothing here really stands out, and in fact, you’d find any of these elements in a Christie book from the same time period.

Where Marsh differs from Christie is that Alleyn is a professional policeman—these books are, therefore, more in the procedural vein than the private investigator line.  So whereas someone like Hercule Poirot can be all “ah, yes” and engage his little grey cells after an inscrutable conversation with someone, or Miss Marple can gently nose her way around by asking seemingly innocuous questions, Alleyn follows police procedure.  He collects evidence, he interviews the suspects, he works on alibi breaking and confirming, constructs a timeline, looks for motives, and pries into personal lives.  It’s all a bit more cut and dried, and Marsh has to labor a bit in this first book to make Alleyn interesting enough for the reader to want to spend an entire novel with him.

In that sense, it’s probably wise that she starts out with an accidental Watson for him in the person of Nigel Bathgate, a reporter who has been invited to the house party along with his cousin Charles, who ends up dead.  Nigel has an unbreakable alibi, so Alleyn can use him in places where he, as a policeman, cannot tread.  The story is told from Nigel’s point-of-view, and as he has a natural interest in what Alleyn is doing, he conveys that interest to the reader.  It works up to a point, but in later books she’d jettison Nigel in favor of a more omniscient point-of-view for the simple reason that once Alleyn’s character is established, Nigel becomes more of an encumbrance than a useful character.  But here he serves his purpose by introducing us, so to speak, to Alleyn and his methods. But it turns out that Roderick Alleyn is pretty hard to get to know.

It’s obvious this is an early book in the series because Marsh seems a bit unclear with what exactly she wants Roderick Alleyn to be—at times he’s a totally conventional policeman, at others a bit of a maverick; he is at turns both capricious and logical.  Sometimes he’s straightforward with Nigel and at other times he’s clearly leading him up the garden path.  He seems an ordinary guy doing ordinary work for Scotland Yard, but there are hints that he’s something a bit more—a vague suggestion of an aristocratic pedigree that she would never spell out even 30 books later, just hint at.

It’s very hard, in this first book, not to see the influence of both Christie and Sayers, and yet Marsh also had a third influence: the theatre.  All of her books have a whiff of theatricality about them, and many of them are set either in the theatre or concern actors.  A Man Lay Dead, with its dramatic murder (a knife in the back is quite plebian compared to some of the later methods she conjured up—one thing about Marsh was that she was rarely at a loss for an unusual means of killing someone, and she came up with some real doozies) and the later recreation of the crime, demonstrate her theatre roots most ably—reading the scene where the body is discovered, for example, I could see it as a stage piece: the gong, the staircase, the body face-down with the dagger in the back, the houseguests standing around gaping.  Enter the Great Detective, stage left.  One thing you can always do with Marsh is visualize every scene, right down to the tray clothes and the leaves on the trees.  She was also an artist, and it shows.

Her theatre experience, and she had a great deal of it, is a great plus in terms of straightforward plotting and limning out basic characters.  But none of the characters in this particular book really develops much past the two dimensional stage—it’s like she’s cast them in the book and told them to take care of developing themselves.  In later books, this doesn’t really get much better, and her seeming determination to keep Alleyn’s roots a mystery even prevents her from doing much with him.  There are exceptions—A Surfeit of Lamphreys, for example, is a great example of what she could do with characters when she felt like bothering.  But just as Christie wasn’t particularly concerned with the people in her books, but the plot, one gets the idea that Marsh is more worried about setting the scene and then filling in the gaps with the expected people.

All of this sounds hyper critical now that I’m reading back through it, and I don’t mean it to be.  While I don’t reread her books as often as others, I do like them, and some of them, like the four set in New Zealand or the ones with a theatre setting, are quite evocative.  When she’s happy and comfortable with her setting, the books seem elevated to another level.  Here, though, her discomfort with the country house setting shows, I think.  So it’s a fun book, and the solution is a bit far-fetched, but it showed the promise of someone with better books in her.

The Mapping of Love and Death, Jacqueline Winspear

The Mapping of Love and Death

The Mapping of Love and Death

I know I’m reading these Maisie Dobbs books all out of order, but I’m just reading them as I come across them with the knowledge that I’m enjoying them so much that I’ll likely sit back down and reread all of them in order once I’ve gotten through them all.

So The Mapping of Love and Death is the 7th installment in the series, and it would appear, based on my limited evidence, to be a pivotal installment in terms of Maisie’s personal life and growth as a character.  The plot itself is engrossing—I really like a mystery where the investigator has to go back into the past in order to solve a case, and I especially like them when the mystery itself is only unearthed some years after the crime.  In this case, Maisie is contacted by The Cliftons, an American couple whose son Michael was killed during WWI.  His body has recently been discovered, along with some papers, a journal, and his equipment, and he appears to have had a liaison with an English nurse during the war.  It is this woman the Cliftons are hoping Maisie will be able to trace.  But Mr. Clifton, who is British by birth, has also seen the post mortem report and knows that Michael was not killed in action, but murdered.

This is a difficult investigation for Maisie, who needs to try and trace not only the unnamed English nurse, but also a murderer. Probing memories in people who might not want to remember is challenging, not only for Maisie the investigator but for Maisie the former nurse.  Michael was a cartographer during the war, and as Maisie weaves her way through various witnesses who had some knowledge of the cartography units, well. The reader gets an idea of just how difficult the task is: there is every chance that someone who might have been able to help her is dead, there are private nursing units as well as those sanctioned by the military, and since the men in Michael’s unit were all killed, the men who knew him best under those particular circumstances are unable to speak.  And when the Cliftons are attacked in their hotel room soon after meeting with Maisie, and when Maisie is later robbed of her document case, things become even less clear: is this a family matter or a war matter?

As a mystery, this is a solid enough effort—all of the major players are identified fairly early on, and it’s really more a matter of why Clifton was murdered than who murdered him; I had no issue figuring it out fairly early.  But the story is none the less compelling for that, and I was quickly caught up in his wartime romance, which parallels a new one for Maisie that readers still catching up with this series may be surprised by.  Then there are the changes in Maisie’s personal life as well—her mentor, Maurice, is ill, and her contact at Scotland Yard has been replaced by a less cooperative man.

I find the period details in these books to be spot on, and Winspear is great at capturing the atmosphere of London between the wars.  There is a major factual error right at the very beginning of the story that I’m not sure most people would catch, and as it has absolutely no bearing on the case, it wasn’t enough to actually put me off.  And I really enjoyed learning more about cartography and the importance of cartographers during the war–Winspear keeps the technical details light, but she offers just enough information to make me want to learn more about their roles in WWI.

What I think Winspear does really well in these books, though, is the characters.  Maisie is both realistic and continually evolving, and she’s an interesting character for the time period she exists in—a woman in what was typically a man’s profession then.  She’s not an amateur sleuth, but a professional inquiry agent, and one who runs her own business to boot.  For her time period, she’s very cutting edge, and it’s interesting to watch her make her way through the various barriers that existed to women back then, especially women who are not wealthy—comparing her to Lady Ella, who used her husband’s wealth to start a private nursing unit during the war, makes you realize just how difficult her path has been. I think a lot of writers might have been tempted to overplay this part, too, because Maisie isn’t just a woman earning her way in a man’s world, but a woman who’s pulling herself upward both financially and socially.  Winspear keeps her firmly balanced, though, and avoids letting things get either twee or unrealistic.  Instead, Maisie becomes a symbol of a time period of rapid social changes, but in a quiet, workmanlike way.  Maisie is never hysterical.  I like that in a character.

The only real issue I had with this book was that the end was tied up a little too neatly—in a case with roots firmly entrenched so far in the past, it seems a little much that Maisie would be able to get all of her questions satisfactorily answered, and there is also a final event that has no connection to the actual case at hand that she feels compelled to push for an answer to, even though it’s not only nosey of her but overbearing.  It felt like Winspear had gone perhaps one step too far in neatening everything up, and it wasn’t necessary.  It bugged me enough that I feel I have to mention it, although it happens so late in the book that I can’t mention what it is without completely spoiling the ending.

Maisie receives some life-altering news at the end as well that should allow the author to take her in even more interesting directions as she continues to explore her character.  I need to go back and read the earlier books in the series first, but I’m looking forward to spending time not only in Maisie’s past, but with her future as well.

 

On a more personal note: given the incident in Boston yesterday, I nearly pulled this post out of respect for the situation.  And then I remembered that mystery novels provide us with a reminder that good and justice always triumph. And in this case, the wheels of justice ground slowly, but in the end, justice won.  It’s an idea worth keeping in mind as we make our way through the upcoming days and weeks.  –donna

Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf

Jacob's Room, Virginia Woolf

Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf

Before I actually get to today’s book, I need to embark on a brief explanation.  At some point last year, I felt like I was getting into a rut with the books I was choosing—I was always reading the same kinds of books, and rereading the same books off my shelves.  I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the latter—we all have comfort reads, I think—but I promised myself that I was going to make some changes this year: read more short fiction, read some new-to-me authors, and reread some classics I haven’t touched in 20 or 30 years.

Thus we come to Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, which was written in 1922.  I should be fair and note that I wrote my master’s thesis on Woolf’s narrative techniques, but I’m going to try really hard to not sound too academic here.  I haven’t read this particular work in almost 30 years—it is not one of Woolf’s better-known novels (it’s really more a novella than novel, since it’s a scant 175 pages in length), and it’s not even one of her best ones, but it is an important one in her development as a writer because in it she departs from more traditional story-telling and begins experimenting with the narrative patterns and techniques that she later perfected in books like Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.

I had forgotten how much I liked this book.  It has no real plot, per se, and there’s no real story, either.  What it really is is a character study of a young man named Jacob Flanders, except it’s hard to call him a character in the traditional sense of the word because his point of view is virtually never seen in the book and everything we learn about him is through the eyes of the people involved with him—his mother, his tutor, his college friends, the girl who loves him, the random people he encounters in his daily life.  Some of these people know him well, some not at all.  We don’t even really get to know him over the 175 pages that the book lasts for.  He is Jacob, and he exists.  But whose impressions of him are right and whose aren’t—that’s not so easy to say.  In some ways, they’re all right.  And in others, they’re all completely wrong.

If I were going to try and describe Woolf’s narrative technique here, I think the most accurate way I can do that would be to compare it to an impressionist painting.  The picture the reader gets of Jacob takes shape over the course of the book, but it’s a very soft, blurry picture, with edges that bleed colors, and shapes that are right, and identifiable, but more suggestions than life-copies.  If you consider, for example, Monet’s water lily paintings and keep in mind that he painted countless studies of the same scene, all of them different, then that’s what this portrait of a young man is like.  It’s Jacob, an identifiable figure studied both casually and seriously by numerous people, each one giving just that slight shift in perspective.

Jacob leaves an impression on people, certainly.  To a woman in a train, he’s a potential villain; to his mother, he’s curious and a handful and later neglectful; to his university friend Timmy he’s an intellectual to exchange ideas with; to the women he meets at the countless dinner parties he attends with no real enthusiasm, he’s someone to fall in love with.  He’s no one in particular and everyone in general, a vessel to be filled by other people’s wants and desires, a sketch to be colored in.  But no one sees him exactly the same way, so the portrait Woolf paints is filled in with sketches and scenes and vignettes of Jacob’s life, some occurring  simultaneously, others in a linear fashion, all of them a splotch of color on the canvas that makes up Jacob’s portrait.

And color is important in this book, which only enhances the painting-like quality of the narrative: Woolf talks about colors as they move—the flash of blue on a butterfly, the grays and greens and silvers of the ladies’ evening dresses at a dinner party as they leave the room, the changing colors of the sea as the sun sets over the water, the light as it changes color in front of various London shops.  Light has color, clothing has color, the wind, even, has color.  No book is a painting, obviously, but this one comes fairly close.

As an experiment, this book doesn’t quite succeed for Woolf—it’s a little too detached in some ways, and the stream of conscious narrative, while beautiful in its way, makes it hard to read.  Certainly the whole point of Jacob Flanders is that he is also detached, beautiful, and hard to read.  We learn the most about him not through the people who give us this picture, but through the items in his various rooms that he keeps and treasures for whatever reason at those points in his life: found objects, books, furniture, his pipe.  They are permanent, fixed objects in time.  People are not.

And yet I’d be lying if I didn’t say I have a great amount of admiration for this kind of work.  In its day it was experimental, ground-breaking, and a sensation, and Woolf, who was obsessed with time as a dimension and how we move through it, tries to capture some of what she was beginning to think about the flow of time here: that it always moves, but not always forward; it ebbs and flows around us and through us and we can never see the whole of it because we cannot see everything, only glimpses of the fabric of it now and then as we move through our everyday lives.  It’s a philosophy she’d go on to perfect in Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.  To see the beginnings of it here is rather fascinating, which, for me, makes reading something like this worth the effort.

Mapp and Lucia, E.F. Benson

Mapp and Lucia

Mapp and Lucia

March and early April in Maine are gloomy times—still cold, often still snowy, and a mix of frozen snow lumps several feet in height and muddy ground from melting snow lumps.  I have a need at this time of the year to read something that’s going to cheer me up, remind me that life could be worse, and make me laugh.  I have several favorite books or series that I reread when I get this way, and this time I went to my favorite author, E. F. Benson, and my two favorite ladies: Elizabeth Mapp and Emmaline Lucas, aka Lucia.

Mapp and Lucia is the funniest book ever written.  Oh sure, the first three books in the series are a riot, and I love them too, but the clash of the social titans that takes place in Mapp and Lucia for the position of Queen Bee of Tilling produces some of the most nuanced, yet obvious, hilarity ever.

If you are not familiar with Lucia, she is the social grand dame of Riseholme when the series begins (Queen Lucia) and conquers London in her next adventure (Lucia in London).  The awful Elizabeth Mapp is introduced in her own book, Miss Mapp, next.  But  bringing together these two paragons in Mapp and Lucia–picture me kissing my fingers to the author and butchering the word bellissimo.

Lucia is emerging from her mourning year following the death of her husband, Peppino, and feels a need for a change to fully emerge from her shell.  Riseholme holds no challenge for her, and by chance she sees an advertisement in The Times offering a house for rent in Tilling for two months.  On a whim, Lucia inveigles her friend and confident Georgie Pillson to accompany her while she investigates Mallards, which belongs to Miss Mapp.  Now Lucia and Mapp have met previously, and clashed, but she agrees to take the house, and Georgie lets Mallards Cottage next door, and Lucia looks forward to conquering Tilling much as Miss Mapp is looking forward to conquering Lucia.

What happens next?  Nothing.  And Everything.  Benson’s pen is dipped in poisonous ink as he ever so politely skewers the pretentious Lucia, the malignant Mapp, and the other residents of Tilling who orbit these two women.  These are people who had no need to earn a living at a time when a life of leisure included a little golf or croquette, amateur painting and music, paying calls and receiving them, writing letters, and shredding one’s friends behind their backs while smiling to their faces.  As Mapp and Lucia jostle for the top position in Tilling, their jabs at each other over petty matters escalate to ridiculous levels, to a point where each woman repeatedly teeters on the verge of complete social disgrace, only to pull herself out of the fire at the last second—or allow herself to be pulled out.

The genius of these books, and this one in particular, is that despite their age they hold up brilliantly precisely because human behavior is so universal—the petty one-upmanships, the need to feel superior, the engaging in trifling pursuits to stave off boredom and inflating their importance until they must become significant or have no meaning at all.  None of these people are nice, really, with the possible exception of Georgie, who has his flaws as well; in fact, they are awful, awful people.  Mapp is a shrewish bully, bent on not only having her own way, but having it at the expense of others’ feelings– nasty and malodorous when thwarted, but simpering and even worse when she isn’t.  Lucia defines pretentious, with her queenly airs and fractured faux Italian (an affectation that nearly lands her in the soup here), her musical evenings and conceited airs and graces.  And yet, what is so dreadful is that everyone goes along with her, slapping her back once in a while when she gets too far over some imaginary line that keeps moving, but always fascinating them nevertheless.

And fascinating the reader.  It’s impossible not to be fascinated by these characters, for better or worse.  Their audacity is something to behold, no matter how horrible it is, and the lesser beings who orbit them manage to puncture them just often enough to keep them from blowing up past an acceptable level of ridiculousness.  If Mapp overplays her hand, for example, someone is bound to get even with her in some way, whether it’s by serving her some of her own rank preserves at tea or mocking her just within her hearing.  And yes, it is all petty and acidic and downright ludicrous.  That’s what makes it all so, so delightful on a dreary April day.

Elegy for Eddie, Jacqueline Winspear

Elegy for Eddie, Jacqueline Winspear

Elegy for Eddie, Jacqueline Winspear

Among the mystery series recommended to me a few months back when I was writing about my interest in Between the Wars fiction was Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books.  Kindle recently had Elegy for Eddie at a reduced price, and investigations suggested that new readers could easily pick up with this book and not feel lost—which turned out to be true, incidentally.

I want to thank those of you who recommended these books—I really liked Maisie and her various cohorts, so much so that I suspect I’ll be going back and reading the entire series.

So Elegy for Eddie involves Maisie looking into the death of Eddie, an autistic horse whisperer she’s known since childhood.  Eddie’s death at a local paper factory seems to be an accident, but the costermongers who knew him insist that there’s something fishy about it and ask Maisie to investigate.  She soon finds that Eddie was doing more than running errands and was inadvertently tangled up in a plot involving a number of powerful men.  Meanwhile, she’s also finding her relationship with James to be suffocating and shifting so quickly that it’s hard to find her balance in it.

I’m going to raise a few eyebrows here and invoke a sacred name (at least to me): Dorothy L. Sayers.  The further I read into this book, the more the comparison came to my mind.  The time frame is nearly identical, and while Winspear is not the stylist Sayers was, she’s also not writing in the time period as Sayers was.  People often talk about how authentic Sayers books feel—well, they were authentic because they were written in the moment, and there’s something about a genuine 20’s and 30’s British voice that is pretty difficult for a contemporary writer to emulate.  For me, finding a writer who is able to somehow capture that element to a point where it’s hard to tell that the book isn’t period is nigh on impossible.  Winspear comes pretty darned close, though.  And Maisie reminds me very much of Harriet Vane in several ways: her logical approach to her work, her need to keep herself intact in her relationship with James and the struggle to find a way to balance all of that, and her adjustment to living in a completely different class than she was born into are all problems Harriet faces, as did any woman who chose to strike out independently in a time when that was still more a novelty than it should have been.

As a mystery novel, this has plenty to cheer about too—it not only reads like an authentic period piece, it’s written and structured much like a mid-thirties Golden Age detective novel—whiffs of political intrigue, suspects across a variety of social classes, clues hidden not just by verbal sleight of hand, but also in character attitudes, and in the end, a good chunk of moral ambiguity for Maisie.  These were complex times for people, and Winspear captures that complexity through the various characters and the situations they find themselves in.  It’s not perfectly done–sometimes it feels a little forced, like she’s trying too hard to get it just right.  But I found those moments few and far between and easily overlooked.

If you’re a fan of Sayers, you should check out Maisie Dobbs, but I will offer a caveat: no one can duplicate Sayers’ brilliance, so don’t expect that.  But this is the same type of mystery, one that not only offers an intriguing puzzle, but also looks at the political and social changes that were rapidly advancing at the time.  In other words, there’s some meat on the bones—and plenty to chew on.