A smooth, well-written mystery that vivisects an England that was already curdling in 1955
“Scales of Justice” was my first Ngaio Marsh book. It’s the eighteenth book featuring Roderick Alleyn as the upper class Scotland Yard Detective Inspector but it can be read as a stand alone with no problems.
At the start of the boook, Marsh lays out the geography of the small English village the story takes place in, like a cleverly designed stage set and acquaints us with the principal character through the optimistic eyes Miss Kettle, the District Nurse, as she glides through the desmesnes of the County set on her sturdy bicycle. She is the cheerful, pragmatic voice of the common woman, filling her speach with valedictions such as “Be good and if you can’t be good, be careful” and through her we first get to know the four interconnected households that the mystey revolves around. These are drawn with such skill that, by the time the murder happens, about a quarter of the way through the book, I found myself regretting the life lost and wanting the murderer caught.
I loved the language in the book, which offered descriptions like this one which is the first introduction of one of the key characters:
The evening light had faded to a bleached greyness. Silvered grass, trees, lawns, flowers and the mildly curving thread of the shadowed trout stream joined in an announcement of oncoming night. Through this setting Colonel Cartarette moved as if he were an expression both of its substance and its spirit. It was as if from the remote past, through a quiet progression of dusks, his figure had come up from the valley of the Chyne.
There are also some good insights into how people really behave towards one another, like this description:
Sometimes there exists in people who are attracted to each other a kind of ratio between the degree of attraction and the potential for irritation. Strangely, it is often the unhappiness of one that arouses an equal degree of irascibility in the other. The tear-blotted face, the obstinate misery, the knowledge that this distress is genuine and the feeling of incompetence it induces, all combine to exasperate and inflame.
The mystery itself is satisfyingly complex. There is a only a small pool of suspects but they are all colourful, it’s a motive-rich environment and the method of the killing takes some working out. Inspector Alleyn, who comes from the same class as the people he is investigating, has a wonderfully calm manner and is very skilled at not being deflected or intimidated by the pressures the entitled habitually bring to bear to protect themselves.
So, as a mystery, this is definitely entertaining. What makes it more than that is what Marsh uses the mystery to do.
Some thoughts on what Ngaio Marsh is using this mystery to do.
It seems to me that Ngaio Marsh was using her mystery to prod and push and perhaps even slice open a particular view of England.
It’s the view of those who believe themselves born to rule. The ones who see nothing odd about the term Home Counties. The ones who honestly believe that England is exceptional because they believe that they and their ancestors before them are and were exceptional.
It’s also about the people who enable and sustain this point of view. The people like Nurse Kettle who believe in “degree” and who are reassured by a social hierarchy which doesn’t change and in which they know and are satisfied with their place.
It’s an England born of and nurtured by the stories the English tell themselves about how the world works.
The picture map that is drawn for Nurse Kettle is a good manifestation of that world view. Someone told me that it reminded them of “Wind In The Willows”. I think that may be because it expresses the same England-as-we-would-like-it-to-be-if-we-were-all-good-chaps spirit. Alleyn describes the place as charming, saying it’s:
‘Like a lead pencil vignette in a Victorian album.’
Given the precision of Alleyn’s language, I was reminded that charm is an illusion, cast to please the eye of the beholder and to hide what is really there.
We’re told that Swevenings, the village name, means dream and the river’s name Chyme, means yawn. Which I think is a hint that the map is a dream of England.
I think Ngaio Marsh manages to show the power of the charm and the ugliness it hides and grant both things a degree of authenticity.
Nurse Kettle, who is happily in the charm’s thrall, is admirable in her way and her world view helps her to remain admirable. Lady Lacklander, who helps to cast the charm, is also admirable in her way. She plays the noblesse obligé game without reluctance and props up the dream through her unassailable certainty in her own entitlement.
Yet the reality the charm is hiding is not just one of disproportionate privilege but of treachery and exclusion and thoughtless exploitation.
Alleyn is able both to see the charm and see through it. He has dedicated himself to facts, even when he doesn’t like where they lead him.
It seems to me that the biggest ‘fact’ Alleyn exposes is that the charm itself is toxic and damages those who cast it, those entralled by it and those excluded from it.
Try the audiobook if you can
I recommend the audiobook version, narrated by Philip Frank. I think he does a superb job. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.