March 24, 2004

A Wreath for Rivera, by Ngaio Marsh

The drummer fires a gun as a gimmick during the swing band's final number, and the accordion player falls down, dead. Who loaded the gun? And why? Enter Inspector Alleyn.

As always with Marsh's mysteries, the pleasure is equally divided between the puzzle and the vivid characters, and that's no less true in this case. It's a fun book, and I enjoyed it.

At the same time, there's a false note about the whole thing. The plot involves a swing band and its members, back in the late '30's when swing was most popular. And though Marsh clearly did her homework, you can't help feeling that she found the whole idea of swing music distasteful; not only do most of the characters find it an ill-sounding noise, the auctorial voice does as well. I suppose it's not surprising; swing must have seemed considerably more dangerous back then, and the bandsmen in the story are a bit of a sordid lot. It would be rather like writing a mystery about a rock'n'roll band when Jerry Lee Lewis still the marrying kind.

Posted by Will Duquette at March 24, 2004 08:22 PM

perletwo said:

I've read this and most Marshes several times over the years; she's my comfort reading. As regards the disdain the characters show for swing: It took me a long time to twig to this, but Marsh sets this and several other books in the uppermost strata of British society. (Alleyn is so uncannily good at solving their crimes because he is of their world, but chooses not to live in it.)

"Scales of Justice" in particular addresses what one character calls 'the code of the Aristocracy': "If we're going to exist at all," she says, "we must abide by our own rules at least." That book is set in postwar England when the Aristocracy was already teetering on the edge of the grave; from the onset of WWII on it never again existed in the perfect-bubble form it has in the '30s books like Rivera, so the issue of How to Be a Postwar Aristocrat was very much on those characters' minds.

My point is, while under that Code eccentricity is fine, even expected to a point (in Scales Alleyn describes a seemingly outrageous lady as "very much of a type"), the Swing thing is the latest manifestation of eccentricity so far beyond that point that several characters seriously regard Rivera as literally certifiable. Not because they think Swing is bad - although they probably do - but because it's wrong For Their Kind. That's the specific tone of aristocratic disdain for the outre that I think Marsh was using the authorial voice to try and convey.

It took me so long to get this, I think, because I'm American and therefore have no real experience of this kind of society. Possibly latter-day Brits retain only a historical memory of the aristocracy and would find Rivera a curiosity, though they'd get it quicker and better than I. I think Madame, Felicite and even Ned and Carlisle would look a little less gratuitously snotty viewed through that lens on second (or third, or fourth, or in my case seven- or eighteenth) reading.

p2, the loquacious Ngaio fan

Will Duquette said:

She's comfort reading for me, too. As regards the opinions of the characters, I think you're absolutely right. And she does have the band's drummer talk about the difference between the kind of music the band plays and more serious jazz, which is another point in your favor.

But I think she gets the message across perfectly well in the various character's reactions to the music. If she was trying to make the point in her narration as well, I think she overdid it. I think it's more likely that she simply found the music as dreadful as her characters did.

perletwo said:

::sigh:: another excuse to push the To Be Read pile back another inch. I'll give Rivera another look this weekend and see what I think in light of this exchange. Now, if I can just get through the weekend without buying any more books for the TBR pile...