Hand In Glove, by Ngaio Marsh (1962)
What’s this book about?
Elderly, fussy Mr. Pyke Period, quite fixated on lineage, is sharing his house with a brace of excellent servants and has recently taken a roommate, retired solicitor Harold Cartell (whose boxer bitch Pixie keeps the household in a constant uproar). Mr. Pyke Period is writing a book on etiquette and to that end hires Nicola Maitland-Mayne as a temporary typist, mostly because of her family connections. Harold Cartell’s family connections include being the second husband of Desiree, Lady Bantling, blowsy and rackety, who lives nearby with her third husband, the bibulous Bimbo Dodds and aspiring painter Andrew Bantling, Desiree’s son by her first (deceased) husband. They also include his sister Constance “Connie” Cartell, loud and brash, whose slutty adopted niece “Moppett” and her unspeakably awful and vaguely criminal boyfriend Leonard Leiss are creating social havoc in the neighbourhood. Aspiring painter Andrew and semi-aristocratic typist Nicola meet and fall in love — Nicola will soon introduce him to her good friend, the celebrated painter Agatha Troy Alleyn, and her husband Roderick “Handsome” Alleyn, Scotland Yard Inspector. In fact, Nicola and Andrew are a common sight in Marsh mysteries, the young couple in the throes of new love, and they have a charming romantic relationship that serves as a relief from the unpleasant nature of most of the rest of the characters.
After we meet the principals and the neighbourhood, Mr. Pyke Period gives a strained luncheon party at which his heirloom cigarette case disappears, and later that day Lady Bantling gives a hard-drinking scavenger hunt on the occasion of April Fool’s Day. Pairs of party guests are all over the neighbourhood searching for clues. It will be no surprise to the experienced mystery reader when Harold, who has quarrelled with or is an impediment, financial or social, to pretty much everyone in the novel, turns up at the bottom of a workmen’s ditch the next morning, having had a dirty great sewer pipe rolled down upon him.
Superintendent Alleyn takes charge and leads Inspector Fox through a brief investigation — brief, because it doesn’t really take a lot of effort to eliminate a great mass of red herring subplots and narrow the focus to motive and opportunity. Everyone’s movements during the long and confused party are traced, and various lies, mistakes, and subterfuges are put to rest in a remarkably short time; the disappearance of the cigarette case, why the strained luncheon was so strained, why Connie Cartell got a letter of condolence the day before her brother died, the events of the party, and the criminous activities of loathsome Leonard and manipulative Moppet. Things come to a head when one character is bopped on the head,non-fatally, and Alleyn soon works out why and by whom. And since the murderer is helpfully the only person who meets a single physical criterion necessary to the killer, and the reader is directly shown that, it is not a huge achievement to figure out whodunnit just as fast as does Handsome Alleyn, but it does feel good to figure out the mystery, doesn’t it?
Why is this worth reading?
I believe it’s generally agreed that the works of Ngaio Marsh begin to decline in quality, pretty much at this precise point in her career. Before this point, she had a long period of, say, 90% well-crafted books, and after this point the comments are of the “Well, this is good BUT” variety. Flaws begin to accrete: poor pacing, unbelievable characters, clearly manipulated plot structures, anachronistic social contexts. Worst of all, the books got boring. Marsh has always been known for mishandling Act II; Alleyn meets the characters and interviews them, one per chapter,until the reader wants desperately for something to happen. Her skill in characterization frequently had to carry the reader through to Act III, when the solution begins to coalesce. In books written after this point, believe me, you’ll occasionally want to scream.
I have been known to be unkind about many of Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries, although I’ve certainly read every single one a number of times. I don’t seem to like the same ones other people do, although there’s a certain pleasure in revisiting Marsh’s characterization skills even in ghastly failures like The Nursing Home Murders — or Last Ditch, which I reviewed here, and which actually made my “Die Before You Read” list. My personal favourite is Overture to Death (1939, a great year for art in many media) but I also think 1955’s Scales of Justice is a fine mystery novel. Most of the rest of her novels have various flaws, but the ones set in New Zealand have an assuredness of place that is sometimes absent in her work. By and large, though, my opinion is, if there are four Queens of Crime, she for me is #4.
That being said — I have recently re-read this novel, never having thought it particularly distinguished in the past, and I have to say, it has considerable skill and intelligence that I missed upon previous readings. Perhaps it’s that I’ve finally realized what she was setting out to do; this book has a Theme. It is About Something; there is a central concept at its core. In previous essays here, I’ve mentioned that for me an essential element of a well-written mystery novel is this kind of dovetailing of the pieces around a central concept. For instance, if a mystery’s central crime (the A plot) is focused around plagiarism at a university, then the B plot should eventually also resolve itself to be focused around plagiarism, in a different way. I used the imaginary example of a popular restaurant owner plagued by a blackmailer because, as it later turns out, her best recipes were stolen — or plagiarized. Everything in the book is sooner or later related to the theme of one person stealing another’s creative work.
I can’t think of how I came to miss it before, but this book does have a theme that just revealed itself to me: the subtle one of family. In this book it includes pride in one’s family tree for Mr. Pyke Period (who has created his own family of servants); this contrasts with the light approach of Desiree, Lady Bantling, who is on her third marriage but still casually uses the title she acquired with the first husband. Charmingly, it includes an actual family tree in the novel — which I hadn’t realized until now is a big clue as to what Marsh was on about here. Nearly everyone in the book is somehow focused upon matrimony, or divorce, or lineage, or their lives have been affected by someone else’s concerns. Connie Cartell, for instance, is child- and boyfriend-free, but she has somehow “adopted” a young girl — to create her own family. Her niece Moppett and her ghastly boyfriend are creating a partnership like Bonnie and Clyde. Nicola and Andrew, of course, are clearly going to be affianced by the end of the novel. And from high emotions to low comedy … Howard’s boxer, Pixie, is in heat– she wants a family too! There’s a reasonably funny scene in the book where Pixie once again slips her leash, every male dog for miles ends up competing for her sexual attentions, and a huge dog fight ensues. At moments of such large-scale crisis, people get unguarded and important clues might appear…
Once I realized that there was this theme built into the structure of the book, I was quite charmed by how deftly the plot had been constructed. I began to see the way in which certain less prominent characters had been designed to provide counterpoint to a different view of family; there was a kind of organic quality to the book so that it seemed that the characters’ differences were merely casual and random, but they had to have been planned. It’s a difficult thing to do for any mystery writer, because it means the book has to be consciously mapped from the outset to make sure that all the pieces contribute to the theme. The late Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels contain great examples of this technique, where the crime that Wexford is solving has strange reverberations in the activities of his family — at the end of the novel, you realize that “everybody has the same problems”. That’s what Marsh does here, and it’s very well done indeed.
I’m more used to finding mysteries that are constructed like this in what I might call more serious works; novelists like Ross Macdonald and Margaret Millar and Fredric Brown, telling dark stories of how people deal with, for instance, insanity. It’s a nice surprise to find that level of construction in what “Francis Iles” (Anthony Berkeley) said in the Guardian (at least according to the blurb on my Fontana paperback), is “Light, entertaining and disastrously readable.” You know, it is. It’s fast-moving, clever, funny, and she’s managed to avoid the sag of Act II by telescoping the action into a very brief time period and having engrossing sub-plots.
It was a pleasure to discern this structure because I felt pleased at being able to find more ability in her work than I sometimes have. For many readers she is a favourite, and it’s hard to be objective about someone who admittedly has a reputation for writing great mysteries that will endure my opinion. Perhaps someday I’ll write about why there are so many of her books where I say to myself, “I like this book, BUT …”. In this case, I learned something about how to structure a mystery novel and had a chance to appreciate why she really is a Queen of Crime. You may not care for the general air of unpleasantness among most of the main characters, as I didn’t for many years, but I hope you will now be able to discern the great bone structure beneath the surface of this novel. Enjoy.
Most editions of this novel have been relatively undistinguished. In 1974, the edition with the cover art shown at the head of this piece and which I read to produce it, I remember being chagrined because it was the signal that Fontana had changed its mind about the uniform edition they had been doing with a photographic representation of the dead body on the cover — as my readers know, I like that idea for some reason! So there is no photo edition of this particular title. I’d have to go with Berkley F-777 shown to the left, although it too was a signal; it’s about when Berkley switched from small size paperbacks to a taller format, and the industry followed along. This was from the early 60s, and if it had been produced a few years earlier, the book would be cut off at her calves. So the size was unusual and “modern” for its time, although it doesn’t seem so to us. And I like the cheerful way that the striking cover art flirts with giving away the secret of the contents.