Ngaio Marsh – Black as He’s Painted (1974)

Samuel Whipplestone, recently retired from the Foreign Office, buys a
house in Capricorn Walk, a quaint London backwater. The house comes with a sitting tenant in the basement flat and a couple of servants , Mr and Mrs
Chubb, who live on the top floor.

Nearby is the Ng’ombwanan Embassy, and
it so happens that in his professional life Mr Whipplestone had some
dealings with Ng’ombwana and knows the Ambassador. But not as well as
Alleyn happens to know the President of Ng’ombwana ; they were friends at
school and Alleyn still knows him by his name from that era – The Boomer.
It is therefore natural that when someone is needed to go to Ng’ombwana
and persuade The Boomer of the need to accept the security arrangements
which Special Branch wants to put in place for the President’s forthcoming
visit to London, there being a seemingly endless list of people and groups
who would wish him dead, Alleyn gets the job. He is also, naturally,
invited, with Troy and Mr Whipplestone and a number of other characters
who happen to reside in Capricorn Square, to the President’s Reception. At
which, perhaps unsurprisingly, the lights go out and a murder is
committed – but it is not the President who is found with a spear sticking
out of his back. Alleyn must not only identify the murderer but continue to protect the President – who meanwhile has asked Troy to paint him.

This is a rum ‘un! The opening is a delight. This is Marsh at her most
Allinghamesque – a curious London backwater painted with real delight and pleasure. One might say that Capricorn Square, its’ environs and
inhabitants (and the book comes with a map!) are the best things about the
book. But this might be a little unfair. Marsh clearly thought she had
something to say about racism, post-colonialism and political assassinations (the Kennedy assassinations are specifically referred to – this was so
unexpected in a GA mystery of this type that I at first wondered what she
was referring to when she spoke of ‘Madmen at large in kitchens…or at
upstairs windows in warehouses’). My own view is that Marsh rarely gets
beyond the conventional and obvious with all this. Her utter rejection of
racism is not only commendable but well done (the racists are loathsome but believable). But her own treatment of the Ng’ombwanians is, to say the
least, dated.

It is obvious that I find it hard to assess this book. The actual solution
to the mystery is a little obvious, but there are many incidental delights
of both location and character. However in the last resort one cannot but be
aware that Marsh’s treatment of the subject matter covered never really gets beyond the conventional and pedestrian. The question is whether she should be commended for trying at all, for attempting to break new ground at 75, or criticised for failing to bring it off. Better perhaps to be generous and stick with the pleasures. Whatever one’s judgement in these matters this is, by the very fact of its’ individuality, vital reading for all Marsh
aficionados.

(July 2007)

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