Ngaio Marsh – Hand in Glove (1962)

Any book which contains not only Marsh’s customary ‘Cast of Characters’ but also (oh joy) a genealogical chart is probably going to be hard to
summarise, so any omissions in the following should be forgiven. Nicola
Maitland-Mayne, our young heroine, has obtained a job assisting the
self-proclaimed snob Percival Pyke Period in his compilation of a book on
etiquette (‘one mustn’t overlap with dear Nancy. Very diffy.’).

PP as he is called shares his house with his friend Harold Cartell who’s horsey and county sister lives across the village green with her adopted niece Moppet, who’s ex-wife Desiree, Lady Bantling, lives up the road with her third husband Bimbo (I lie not) and who’s step-son (Desiree’s son from her first marriage) Andrew is our young hero – a Guardsman who wishes to give up soldiering and become a painter; Harold is preventing this latter object as
he is Andrew’s trustee. In addition we have Moppet’s boy-friend Leonard a
young crook. It will be seen that Harold Cartell is central to the action
and unsurprisingly he is murdered. Thrown into the mix are PP’s inveterate
and almost pathological snobbery about his origins, a stolen cigarette case,
a late night treasure hunt and some misaddressed letters. Alleyn arrives on
page 98 and proceeds to unravel the case.

Hand in Glove is certainly not to be placed amongst Marsh’s greatest
achievements. Nicola is another somewhat anonymous Marsh young heroine figure, and her romance with Andrew highly predictable; not jarring but uninteresting. Leonard Leiss and Moppet are the worse things about the
book – badly drawn caricatures leaving one with the feeling that Marsh was
completely out of her depth with early sixties culture; they are at best
embarrassing and at worst indicative that Marsh was herself not immune from the kind of absurd snobbery which she sends up through PP. The crime and its solution are routine and the murderer will come as no sunrise to anyone familiar with Marsh’s work.

Having said all which the book still has charms and interest. Miss Cartell
and Desiree are both – as usual with Marsh – finely drawn portraits of older
women. There are a couple of excellent comic scenes. But above all we have
Mr Percival Pyke Period. He is one of Marsh’s great individual characters. I
have to admit that I am not sure how far my view on this is influenced by
the absolutely magnificent portrayal given of him by Gielgud in the
television adaptation; I cannot now read the book without Gielgud’s face and
voice in my head. But I think Gielgud needed something to work on and
Marsh’s portrait – comic, satirical, compassionate, sad – shows that her
powers of characterisation, at least of characters with whom she had some
sympathy, had not diminished.

(June 2007)