Saturday, September 6, 2014

Death in a White Tie: Review

Death in a White Tie is a reread for me. I discovered Ngaio Marsh back at my hometown Carnegie Library (more moons ago than we need to count) and I promptly read through all the Marsh books they had. Later, about twenty years ago, I read some of them again and Death in a White Tie was one simply because it's one of my favorites. There are so many things I enjoy about this tale of murder and blackmail amongst the London Society at the height of the Season--from the witty dialogue, to the scenes at the various society dos (debutante balls and teas and Agatha Troy's one-man art show), to the understated romance between Alleyn and Troy, to his affection for his mother, to the undercurrents of gossip in the chaperone circle at the dance. It's all so veddy, veddy British and elegant and well-done. And Marsh presents us with one of the most sympathetic victims--who doesn't want Bunchy's killer found and punished to the full extent of the law?

The story begins with Inspector Roderick Alleyn asking Lord Robert "Bunchy" Gospell to assist him in tracking down a despicable blackmailer who is at work among the cream of London society. Bunchy moves through society like everyone's favorite uncle. He can talk to anyone and go anywhere and no one would suspect that behind his twinkle and rather high, almost silly voice lies a very sharp brain that has helped the officials with other difficult problems in the past. His first assignment--to attend a performance of Bach at one of the new concert-rooms and attempt to find out who collects the blackmail money which the latest victim has been instructed to leave in her purse stuffed into a blue sofa.  As Alleyn tells him:

Bunchy, let nothing wean you from the blue sofa. Talk to Mrs. Halcut-Hackett. Share the blue sofa with her and when the austere delights of Bach knock at your heart pay no attention...

Lord Robert does his job well and becomes convinced he knows the blackmailer's identity even though the lights were dimmed when the bag was collected. But he wants to be sure of his facts and confirmation comes at the next society function, a ball held by Lady Carrados for her daughter's coming-out. He calls up Alleyn before he leaves (to be sure the Inspector will still be at the Yard) and, unfortunately, someone walks in on his conversation. Two hours later, a taxi rushes up to the Yard with the driver announcing that his fare's been murdered. He's right...and the murdered man is Lord Robert Gospell.

Alleyn is dismayed and clearly shaken, not because he's lost a vital witness but because he's lost a very dear friend. He also feels directly responsible since Lord Robert was involved purely at his behest and he gives us a bit of the avenging hero speech when he speaks to Bunchy's sister.

I tell you this, Mildred, if it takes me the rest of my life, and if it costs me my job, by God! if I have to do the killing myself, I'll get the murderer and see him suffer for it.

He quickly realizes the melodrama of his words and says, "Good Lord, what a speech! Bunchy would have laughed at it." But, with the aid of  Detective-Inspector Fox, he sifts through the movements of each suspect and makes good on his vow--bringing the crime home to murderer in less than two days.

This is, I believe, one of Marsh's best novels. It doesn't matter that I've read it before and know who the culprit is. I enjoy every minute that I spend in the company of the dashing gentleman policeman, Roderick Alleyn. ★★★★  and 1/2 for a lovely vintage read.  

The story was adapted for television as part of a BBC mystery series and I've also viewed the episode starring Patrick Malahide as Alleyn in honor of the book's entry in the book to movie portion of one of my challenges. While the series is very good and engaging, I do take exception to a few changes made to the story--particularly one character's response to his wife's experience of being blackmailed and the loss of Alleyn's poetic way of declaring his love [quotes below]. Malahide, although not quite the handsome detective I pictured, absolutely owns the character of Alleyn. An excellent performance following the most excellent read. As an added bonus, I also listened to Benedict Cumberbatch read a slightly abridged version of the novel through Youtube.  You could say that I've had quite the White Tie orgy.

It is a curious thing that when one speaks from the heart it is invariably in the worst of taste. (Roderick Alleyn; p. 61)

She's extremely common, but that doesn't matter. Lots of common people are charming. Like bounders. I believe no woman ever falls passionately in love with a man unless he has just the least touch of the bounder somewhere in his composition. (Lady Alleyn; p. 196)

Vassily broke into a loud laugh, excused and bowed himself out, and shut the door behind him with the stealth of a soubrette in a French comedy. (p. 246)

He stooped, took her face between his hands, and kissed her hard on the mouth. He felt her come to life beneath his lips. Then he let her go.
"And don’t think I shall ask you to forgive me," he said. "…I’m your man and you know it….When I kissed you just then you seemed to meet me like a flame. Could I have imagined it?"

"It was as if you shouted with your whole body that you loved me. How can I not be arrogant?" 
"How can I not be shaken?”   (Roderick Alleyn, Agatha Troy; p. 248)

AT: I’ve been very weak. When I said I’d come I thought I would keep it all very peaceful and impersonal. You looked so worn and troubled and it was so easy just to do this. And now see what’s happened.
RA: The skies have opened and the stars have fallen. I feel as if I’d run round the world in the last hour. And now you must leave me. (Roderick Alleyn, Agatha Troy; p. 249)

AT: How extraordinarily well-trained your eye must be! To notice the grains of plate-powder in the tooling of a cigarette case; could anything be more admirable? What else did you notice?
RA: I notice that although your eyes are grey there are little flecks of green in them and that the iris is ringed with black. I notice that when you smile your face goes crooked....
AT: Please tell me the end of the case.
RA: I would rather tell you that since this afternoon in the few spare moments I have had to spend upon it I have considered your case and that I have decided to take out a warrant for your arrest. The charge is impeding an officer of the law in the execution of his duty." (Alleyn, Troy; p. 271)

Troy, I love you more than anything in life. I've tried humility: God knows, I am humble. And I've tried effrontery. If you can't love me, tell me so, and please let us not meet again because I can't manage meeting you unless it is to love you. (Alleyn; p. 273)


Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed your review Bev as I tend to need convincing when ti comes to Marsh - I read this one ages ago (probably when the TV version as first on, 20 years ago ...) and thought it a bit long but I still have it on the shelves and will dig it out and have another you, you have definitely convinced me. Thanks.

Yvette said...

I love this post, Bev. LOVE that last comment, Alleyn to Troy. SIGH! What a man.


I liked Bunchy SO much and was heartbroken at his death. I especially felt for Alleyn in this one. In the televised production, the actor who played Bunchy was so endearing.

Between you, Bev, and Sergio, today, I've been talking Ngaio Marsh and Alleyn and NOT doing what I'm supposed to be doing. SO distracting. :)

fredamans said...

Weird nickname... Bunchy... lol.
Not sure I could get into the way the author wrote the scenes. That style of language is often too mature for my senses. The show, on the other hand, is something I might check out.
Great review!

Katherine P said...

Oh I loved this one! It's one of my favorite Marsh's. I haven't watched the TV adaptations but I've seen them listed and was curious. Thanks for reminding me of this one!

samantha.1020 said...

I am such a sucker for a classic mystery! This sounds like a book that I would definitely enjoy (and an author that I need to try). I'm adding this one to my TBR list thanks to your review :)