Thursday 15 December 2016

False Scent, by Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh’s False Scent 1960

Nobody seems to like this book much, I’m not sure why. I’m rather fond of it, perhaps due to the brilliant audio performance by James Saxon. This is for the Past Offences 1960 challenge.

Mary Bellamy is an actress of, as Inspector Alleyn puts it, the “naughty darling” school. Her heyday was probably the 30s. She wakes on the morning of her birthday as her maid Florence (also her dresser) brings her breakfast in bed. Mary lives in some style, thanks to a rich husband. Her dresser has made her a filmy embroidered camisole, but her old Nanny (known as Nin) has knitted her a warm bedjacket, saying that you like to be comfortable when you’re “getting on”. Yes, Mary can’t kid herself she’s 49 any more.

Her husband Charles enters the room and she disloyally ponders how badly he has aged. Then she makes the mistake of posing for him in the camisole and a shaft of sunlight. He notices that she is using a lethal looking pest spray on her indoor plants and begs her to throw it out. Another admirer makes her a present of a vulgarly large cut-glass bottle of an overpowering scent, and Charles begs her not to use that either.

As preparations for her birthday party get under way, we meet the rest of the cast as Mary has flaming rows with one after the other. Bertie Saracen, her gay costume designer (where would she be without the “Saracen concealed curve”?) and her old friend and understudy Pinky Cavendish, who has just been offered a rather too-good part. Mary lays into them both, getting more and more paranoid and seeing conspiracies everywhere.

“Rise above, dear, rise above,” says Bertie to Pinky and they carry on doing the flowers (there’s a conservatory downstairs as well as in Mary’s bedroom).

We also meet Dicky, Mary’s adopted son, who has written several plays for her. He is nervous about showing her the latest, as it’s in a completely different style and doesn’t have a role for her. In fact it’s meant to star his new girlfriend, Anelida, who lives nearby with her antiquarian bookseller uncle, Octavius Browne. Maurice Warrender, Charles’s cousin and an old admirer of Mary’s, turns up early for the party.

The bash gets going, the guests mill about, including Mary’s director, Timon Gantry, and producer, Monty Marchant. Aspiring actress Anelida of course makes an impression on Bertie (“your clever hat!”) and Gantry, who immediately asks her to read for him. Mary overhears, there are more scenes, and Mary goes upstairs to apply some more of the pungent scent (Formidable), which she has poured into her atomizer. Yes, she is found dying on her bedroom floor as someone has adulterated the scent with the Slaypest. The Yard are called in and the main players spend an uncomfortable night sitting around as various awkward truths are revealed, between agonizing silences and the occasional “deadly little pause”.

The opening scene, the entractes with Bertie and Pinky. A few likeable characters: Florence, Colonel Warrender. I like Alleyn and Fox as well. Alleyn’s facetiousness is toned down from the earlier books.

Octavius is insufferably arch, and Anelida is both pallid and wet. And we’re supposed to like them, which makes it harder to bear. Anelida deserves a role in James Barrie's Dear Brutus, bleating: "Daddy, come back; I don't want to be a might-have-been." Dicky’s “different play” sounds intolerable, but perhaps it’s meant to. The fact that Florence is known as “Floy”. (Marsh nicked her from Somerset Maugham’s Theatre, but filled her out and made her more of a character.) Nin’s over-indulgence in port and subsequent bad behaviour. She talks backwards, like this: “A man to you, seem he may...”, a tic also displayed by the Nanny in Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes. Alleyn calling the middle-aged Florence a “girl”.

What makes it particularly 1960?
Drawing-room comedy is going out, probably thanks to television. Mary’s clothes: for the party she wears pink, with flying panels of chiffon, over what sounds like a “corselette”. Anelida going to an evening party in a white hat. (The 60s didn’t really know what to do with hats. They were no longer obligatory for respectable women, as in the 50s and earlier, but milliners had to make a living and hats became a “feature”.) A gay character (Bertie) with a well-honed camp persona. (Homosexuality was still illegal, but the law was soon to change, and Kenneth Williams was a big star.)

More Marsh.

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