I’m enjoying my tour through the world of mysteries, both with my mystery book club and on my own, and Ngaio Marsh’s novel Death in a White Tie was a fun, albeit lightweight, example. It’s the first Marsh I’ve read and not necessarily the last, although she is a writer for a particular kind of mood — the kind of mood where you need something calming and predictable.
Set in the 30s, the novel tells of debutantes, balls, and London social seasons; the detective, Inspector Alleyn, comes from this high class world, although having a real job, he’s a little at odds with it as well. The first few chapters introduce you to the cast of characters (it does this very straightforwardly with a chapter entitled “The Protagonists”). We learn of trouble beneath the facade of glamour and luxury; some of the characters are being blackmailed, and one of the novel’s most likeable characters, Bunchy, otherwise known as Lord Robert Gospell, is put on the case. When he ends up murdered, Alleyn is saddened by the loss of his friend but must manage to put his feelings behind him so he can conduct the investigation — an awkward business, since many of those he must investigate are his friends.
The novel follows a very predictable structure, and at times this can get a bit dull; there is a long section in the middle where Alleyn interviews every major character, and these go on a bit. But there is pleasure to be found in following Alleyn as he and his assistant Fox piece the puzzle together, and as we meet some intriguing minor characters, such as the odd, extremely inhibited secretary Miss Harris. It’s the pleasure, I suppose, of knowing pretty much exactly where you’re going and happily enjoying the journey.
There are certainly a number of strange moments in the book, for example the hard-to-believe, at times embarrassingly awkward love story between Alleyn and the painter Agatha Troy. And then there is the bizarre conversation Alleyn and his mother have about gender politics. She argues that
… no woman ever falls passionately in love with a man unless he has just the least touch of the bounder somewhere in his composition.
Alleyn is surprised by this argument in favor of male arrogance and bullying, but then he tries it out on Troy with surprising success. I didn’t like this, but I was amused by the way Alleyn’s mother calls this gender dynamic “savagery” and argues that it is the same savagery that lies behind the church wedding ceremony and behind the season itself:
As long as one recognizes the more savage aspects of the Season, one keeps one’s sense of proportion and enjoys it.
I read this on vacation, and it was a good vacation book — not too mentally taxing, fun in a low-key kind of way. Not everyone in my book group was as easy to please as I was; many of them didn’t like it at all while some others reacted much as I did, with mixed feelings. I don’t know who we are reading next, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
5 responses to “Death in a White Tie”
Sounds interesting but not necessarily one to read if you are not a big mystery fan?
I read Marsh as a teenager and at the same time that I was reading Christie and Allingham for the first time. While I’ve found myself going back to the other two I haven’t returned so often to Marsh and I think of the three she is the one that has become most dated. Campion, Poirot and Marple have a timeless eccentricity about them. You couldn’t put Alleyn anywhere else.
Is this the Inspector Alleyn on which the BBC mystery series is based? I think I’ve only seen one episode, so I can’t tell from your review if it is.
It sounds like a “someday if I have time” book but maybe not one to put at the top of the list.
I read the first Marsh book not too long ago and enjoyed it–you’re right–a not too taxing sort of book and very entertaining for the right mood. Even though she may seem a bit dated, I liked the feel of the period and plan on reading more of her work. There’s lots of great mystery writers out there–I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the books your group has picked (and the ones on the side, too).
How interesting! I really enjoyed this, but then I guess I love reading works that have a particular sense of the time in which they were written. I remember that conversation with the mother and admired the depths of its irony – this is the system in which we live, it’s awful, but we put up with these things because nothing can change, so ironical distance is the best we can do. I felt that Alleyn used it but it was like pushing a button that got him a result but made both of them feel a little cheap and dirty. I felt that that was a true comment on the mindset of the thirties – hence in some ways why another war proved impossible to avoid. But still, Marsh IS a deeply traditional writer and we are used to the formula now, and I do agree with the commenter who said that she hasn’t lasted as well as Christie or Sayers.