Ngaio Marsh –  Sisters In Jeopardy (1954)

Sisters in Jeopardy is a very odd entry in the Marsh canon. Alleyn, with Troy and young son Ricky in tow, set off to the South of France. Their purpose is, on Alleyn’s part to investigate an international drugs ring, whilst also having a family holiday; they also wish to make contact with a Mr Garbel who has written to Troy claiming to be her second cousin and happens to live in Rocqueville, which is near the house Alleyn has to penetrate. While on the train they witness what appears to be a murder occurring at that house; a woman on the train falls very ill and the only doctor who can save her is – naturally – the sinister Dr Baradi who resides at Chevre D’Argent, the headquarters of the drug syndicate under the even more sinister direction of Mr Oberon. Messrs Oberon and Baradi also lead the inhabitants of the house in an esoteric and semi-satanic cult composed of various ersatz elements, including various drug fuelled rituals of a more or less erotic nature. In the course of the book Ricky gets kidnapped and recovered and both drug ring and cult are utterly smashed by Alleyn and the various people caught up in it either saved or condemned according to their lights. There is actually very little mystery in the book though the solution to the mystery of Garbel, who is nowhere to be found in Rocqueville, is a neat and enjoyable one.

What is odd is not only the sensationalist, thriller nature of the book (it reads in part like a Dornford Yates adventure) but also Marsh’s developed moral disgust. She has – in common with other GA novelists eg  Sayers in Murder Must Advertise, Christie in the short story The House of Diomedes, Heyer in Duplicate Death – an implacable aversion to drugs (very obviously in all cases founded on absolutely no personal knowledge, and as far as one can tell almost no research – the descriptions of the effects tend to the risible); but the references to pornography and deviant sex are more individual. Alleyn quite often makes references to works on the ‘banned list’ (these are usually French!) and I do not recall this occurring in many other GA writers; certainly it would stand out in Christie. Marsh also covered a sinister cult in her early work Death In Ecstasy (1936). Here in Spinsters in Jeopardy while she is, of course given the period and nature of her writing, reticent as to what actually occurs at the various ceremonies it is very clear that sexual shenanigans are involved. In part it could be argued that this is one aspect of the undoubted truth that sex and its complications are very much more prominent and important in Marsh’s oeuvre than any of her peers (certainly than in Allingham, Christie or Sayers); this can take many forms from sexual frustration (eg and very brilliantly in Overture to Death) to numerous romances (passim). However, it might also be argued that there is also a puritanical streak here: this is actually part of Alleyn’s character (wonderfully caught in Mainwaring’s brilliant Murder in Pastiche where Mr Broderick Tourneur is given to saying ‘how utterly beastly’). The decadent cult seen in Sisters in Jeopardy can be fascinatingly compared with that in Christie’s short story The Flock of Geryon (like Diomedes this is in The Labours of Hercules); in Christie the cult is very simply a money-making con and the chief con-man has no interest in anything other than money – again this is characteristic.  All these features give Spinsters in Jeopardy a distinctive character. It certainly cannot be claimed as one of the shining gems in the Marsh canon – the plot is slight and it is decidedly over-the-top; it is very obvious that Marsh is outside her areas of expertise and strength; however it is certainly an interesting oddity for Marsh students and the obsessive harping on the evils of drugs and (non-conventional) sex are of considerable interest.

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