August 24, 2003

Death at the Bar
Colour Scheme
Death of a Fool
Black as He's Painted
by Ngaio Marsh

My husband, kids, and I recently returned from a week up near Hayward, WI. We rent a log cabin on a lake, stock the fridge with easily prepared food and relax without phone, TV, computers or local/state/national news. We spend the evenings playing cards and eating popcorn, the mornings and late afternoons either fishing or napping and generally ignore the rest of the world for a week. It is heavenly, especially now that the kids are old enough to take care of themselves without supervision.

I pack a bag of books that would stock a small library and spend my time either on the couch or in the deck chair reading myself half blind. Series books are great because you can chew them up at a fantastic rate. Light murder mysteries have been my book of choice the last few years when up north, so when I discovered Ngaio Marsh I tossed an armful of hers into my book bag. I had packed a half dozen or so of Wodehouse also but we went to town and I found another series I hadn't seen before. But that's a different review.

What's so fun about Ngaio Marsh is that she takes her general formula and varies the locale so completely that each book is both familiar and unique. Death at the Bar takes place in a small fishing village where a famous lawyer has been poisoned when playing darts. The pub owner pleads with Inspector Alleyn to come down and solve the mystery when his pub's honor is besmirched by the unsolved murder.

Colour Scheme takes place in New Zealand at a hot springs spa similar to Rotorua though not quite so popular. The War is in progress and a ship has been torpedoed just off the coast from the spa. Strange lights and signals have been seen. And one of the spa's residents has found his way in the dark into a hot mud pool under suspicious circumstances. Marsh throws a twist into this one that amused me no end though it was fairly apparent at the outset what she was doing.

Death of a Fool takes place back in England. In a small village the Winter Solstice is celebrated with a local variation of the Morris Dances using real swords and ancient stones. The local aristocracy has always hosted the village event and the local blacksmith's family has always performed the dance. Publicity is avoided at all cost so when a folklore specialist, who happens to be a Nazi refugee and completely annoying to boot, discovers it, everyone is put out. And then, in the middle of the dance, the blacksmith is discovered decapitated behind the stone alter, in full view of the village. And no one knows how it was done.

Black as He's Painted is the most recent of the four in this review. The dictator of an emerging African nation, former colony, is insisting on coming to London. He's had several assassination attempts on his life before and the police are nervous. Fortunately, he's a school chum of Detective Alleyn's. And he commissions Troy, the detective's wife to do a state portrait of him. When his Ambassador to London is discovered pinned to the floor by the ceremonial spear his body guard is carrying during a gala celebration, Alleyn just naturally has to investigate.

Of the four, I disliked the last one. Marsh is much better with the local village or the New Zealand setting than emerging African nations. This one bordered on silly, something her books to date haven't done. However, on the whole, I am again amazed at how well she takes her basic plot and uses settings and characters flesh it out and make it unique. They haven't gotten repetitive at all, so far. I plan on reading the rest of her stuff, so we'll see.

Posted by Deb English at August 24, 2003 07:32 PM