April 02, 2005

Death of a Fool, by Ngaio Marsh

If I was less pleased with Scales of Justice on second reading, I was more pleased with Death of a Fool. On first reading I found it dreadfully strange and confusing, mostly because it involves the weird and wonderful world of Morris dancing. I know very little about Morris dancing even now, but I knew nothing of it then, and wondered what kind of rabbit hole I'd tumbled into.

Here's the little I've gathered; but don't quote me. At certain times of the year in English country villages, a group of men would put on costumes adorned with ribbons and bells and dance an odd sort of group dance. Sometimes there would be a sequence of dances and something like a play, with ritual actions and words. The usual explanation is that the dance, the play, and especially the words were a hold-over from pre-Christian fertility rites.

Death of a Fool was first published in 1956; at that time, I gather, what you might call authentic traditional morris dancing was greatly in decline. The book takes place in a small village, where the the "Mardian Morris", or "Dance of the Five Sons", is still performed every winter on "Sword Wednesday", just as it had been for centuries. But Mardian is described as perhaps the last village where the authentic thing still persists as an authentic tradition, performed by the villagers solely for the villagers, and as yet unnoticed by outsiders.

If you want to know more about morris dancing, just do a Google search; I found buckets of websites all about various morris dancing associations, and I confess I did not particularly scrutinize any of them.

The tale itself is an interesting variant on the locked room mystery. The play calls for one of the dancers to hide in a hollow behind a low stone for a time, and then eventually rise up; and when the time comes for the dancer to rise up it's discovered that he's been beheaded. And yet the stone was in plain sight throughout, and no one was seen to go near it. So how was the deed done?

Inspector Alleyn is in his usual good form, and there are a number of memorable characters among the villagers; it made for a nice, comfortable read.

Posted by Will Duquette at April 2, 2005 09:21 AM