Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Death of a Fool

Death of a Fool (1957; originally Off With His Head) by Ngaio Marsh

Set just after World War II, Marsh represents a rural village in England that still hangs on to the ways of the past....the long ago past. For centuries the village of South Maridan has celebrated the winter solstice with a Wednesday Sword Dance. Outsiders are not generally welcomed to the festivities which features the "Dance of the Five Sons" and revolves around the death and resurrection of the father figure (the Fool), played by William Anderson or the Guiser as he's known--the local black smith. The parts of the sons are taken by his own sons with two additional parts, "Crack" (who chases and tries to "tar" the young women) and the "Betty" (a teasing figure who also tries to woo the ladies), played by Simon Begg (ex-military son of the local grocer) and Ralph Stines (son of the local clergyman). But Mrs. Bunz, an eccentric German researcher of such ancient rites, comes rolling into the village and is determined to see all there is to see and makes a general nuisance of herself as William Anderson and his sons and friends rehearse for the big day. 

Also in the mix is Dr. Otterly who plays the fiddle for the dance, Dame Alice Maridan who hosts the Sword Dance every year at Maridan Castle and also Ralph's aunt, Dulcie who is companion to Dame Alice, Trixie--a local barmaid, dalliance of Ralph's but planning to wed one of the blacksmith's sons though the old Guiser doesn't approve, and Camilla Campion--daughter of William Anderson's wayward daughter and serious love interest for Ralph. Camilla has recently come to South Maridan to see if she can patch things up with the grandfather who virtually disowned his daughter when she ran off to marry a "popish" man.

Ernie, the youngest son, has a run-in with his father just before the dance. The young man, who is a bit mentally handicapped, is quite attached to his mongrel of a dog. It's not explained exactly what is wrong with the animal, but his brothers and father all tell him that the dog should be put down. The Guiser finally does shoot the animal and this sends Ernie into a crying rage. He's also jealous of his father's central part in the Sword Dance. He's quite sure that he could dance the Fool even better than his father and is very put out that he must be the "Whiffler" (who whisks his sword back and forth in pantomime to clear the way for the revered Fool).

His brother Chris also has a dust-up with the Guiser in the days leading up to the dance. Chris is Trixie's intended, but the Guiser doesn't want to see his son wedded to such a girl. (The Guiser really is an awful snob all 'round.) And the brothers as a group are a bit put out with the old man over a scheme to sell the smithy--which really doesn't pay like it did in the days before automobiles--and start up a gas station/garage. They, of course, are in favor of a more profitable venture and he stubbornly refuses to give up the old ways.

And so comes the day of the dance. All goes well until the Fool is supposed to rise up from behind the rock where he has fallen after a mock beheading at the hands of his sons. When he doesn't get up on cue, the sons investigate only to find that William Anderson has actually been beheaded in truth. The local Superintendent and Sergeant of police were among those in the audience and everyone (including them) present--dancers and audience alike--are positive that no one came near the Guiser once he fell down, perfectly alive, behind the stone. So, how could he have been killed? Superintendent Carey and his Chief Constable have the good sense to realize that they need the help of the Yard...and the Yard has the good sense to send Inspector Roderick Alleyn to figure out the mystery of the impossible beheading.

Marsh always sets her scene well. The reader immediately gets the feel of the village from the moment Mrs. Bunz shows up in her little car--all eager to join in the festivities and completely missing that the chilly nature of her reception by the inhabitants has nothing to do with winter weather. The characters come to life and I definitely got the flavor of the dance and music performed for us all. I was slightly disappointed that I spotted the villain of the piece early on--but for the life of me I couldn't see how the thing was done, so I can't say the mystery was spoiled for me altogether. Really a quite interesting study of small village life in rural England. ★★★★

[Finished 7/7/19]
Gold Just the Facts: Where--small village
Calendar of Crime: Dec--other holiday ("Sword Wednesday" at winter solstice)


Nick Fuller said...

It's really Marsh's go at writing a Gladts Mitchell novel: folklore, pagan survival, dancing, and, of course, decapitation.

Bev Hankins said...

I have the Mitchell novel--but haven't read it yet. Perhaps I should move it up the TBR stack so I can compare these properly.