Ngaio Marsh – Off With His Head (1957)

Mrs Bunz, a near obsessional folk-lorist, arrives at the tiny villages of East and West Mardian in the hope of witnessing the annual performance of the Dance of the Five Sons, an ancient mumming rite. Although she is rudely rebuffed by both Dame Alice Mardian, the matriarchal owner of Mardian Castle where the Dance takes place, and William Anderson the patriarchal blacksmith who is its’ main organiser, she manages to attend the performance. One of the highlights of the Dance is the decapitation of the ‘actor’ playing the Fool – in this particular case the decapitation is all too real. 

Off With His Head is one of Marsh’s masterpieces, in which we can see both characteristic and unusual elements. Characteristically there is a theatrical element, there is a love story (between the grand-nephew of Dame Alice – Ralph Stayne – and the grand-daughter of William Anderson – Camilla Campion), there is a loopy middle aged lady (Mrs Bunz), there is a young heroine (Camilla). But here we also have a large element of the weird, one might almost say the gothic. Now Marsh is very obviously making a nod to Allingham here – not only do we have Camilla Campion but, to drive the point home, the local police inspector is called Yeo Carey (Yeo was one of Allingham’s policemen); Allingham’s village books often place a strong emphasis on local peculiarities, folk customs etc.. Dame Alice is the kind of idiosyncratic ancient matriarch in whom Allingham delighted (see for instance [Police at the Funeral]). The eccentricity of these villages might also be said to provide links to the Crispin/Innes school. Marsh here boils down the village to its’ essential elements – the gentry (Dame Alice, her potty niece Dulcie and Ralph), the vicar, the doctor, the innkeeper and his daughter Trixie, the displaced garage keeper Simon Begg and ‘the people’, represented by William Anderson and his five sons. The theme of class conflict and position is made explicit in the story of Camilla – her mother was William’s daughter but he disinherited her when she ran away with Mr Campion, the son of a Baronet and a Catholic to boot. Camilla has returned to the village to see if she can work out her disparate class genes. Marsh is bringing that critical New Zealand eye to bear. And she is pretty hard-nosed about it all – the essential unpleasantness and callousness of both Dame Alice and William Anderson are not glossed over in the way that they might be in say Allingham or Innes (at times anyway). Marsh glories in the weirdness and eccentricity but does not let it fool her or us. Another strong theme in this book is the position of the returned warrior – Begg, Ralph, one of Anderson’s sons were all actively involved in WW2. 

Another unusual feature of this book, which contributes to making it one of her best, is that it does not flag when Alleyn arrives. This is partly because the characters and location are so strong, partly because the love story is much more interesting than usual, and partly because the nature of the crime (decapitation) and the fact that the body has been moved, prevents a lot of the tedious forensic detail in which Marsh tends to get lost. The book culminates in the re-creation of the crime and it can certainly be argued that this is one of the finer ‘crime recreations’ in GA fiction, precisely because the crime itself was so weird and outlandish. It stands as a rather bizarre example of the ‘impossible crime’.

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