Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Tuesday Night Blogs: Ngaio Marsh and Watsonism

Those Tuesday Night Blogs did go on but last month's subject was Ellery Queen and, although I have read a great many of the novels and short stories and consider Ellery Queen and his creators to be of pivotal importance to the history of the genre, I could not think of anything to say that might be even of fractional interest. So different with Dame Ngaio Marsh: I have already lined up several subjects I want to write about and here is the first one: is Nigel Bathgate, the journalist, Roderick Alleyn's Watson?

He is certainly described by many as such by critics and historians of the genre as well as various biographers of Dame Ngaio (her damehood was earned by her work in the New Zealand theatre, which she and everyone else considered more important than her 'tec fiction). Bathgate describes himself as such on a number of occasions and several times he is given that role in the list of characters that the highly theatrical author provided at the beginning of her novels. At other times he is described as a journalist or just simply as Mr Nigel Bathgate (Final Curtain). He does not appear in all or even in the majority of the novels, only in seven of the pre-war ones and two of the post-war ones. His final appearance is in the very weak and wooden Swing, Brother, Swing, in which he is not a Watson but merely a journalist who is after a story and is, in return, prepared to give some information about a somewhat ridiculous magazine Harmony and its contributors. Thereafter he is not seen again though, one must assume that his and his wife's friendship with Alleyn and Troy goes on. For one thing, Alleyn is the young Bathgate's godfather.

Watsonism, to use Dorothy L. Sayers's expression is a curious phenomenon and, it would appear, poorly understood even by practitioners, let alone critics. Miss Sayers, naturally enough, understood it well and talked about it very interestingly in her discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But others find the whole thing more difficult. Sandra Roy, for instance, in her book on Josephine Tey suggests that at the beginning Sergeant Williams is Inspector Grant's Watson, a preposterous suggestion, as a Watson cannot be the detective's professional subordinate. Dr Thorndyke's several Watsons are themselves legal medicos - they just do not happen to be brilliant.

As it happens there is another character who claims to be Alleyn's Watson when Bathgate is absent from the plot and that is Col. the Hon. Maxwell Barrington, the preposterous and highly irritating Chief Constable in Death at the Bar. In between breaking every traffic law, snitching cigarettes from anyone who happens to be around and irritating his subordinates Colonel Barrington tells the Chief-Inspector that he wants to be his Watson and that consists of him not listening to any of the conclusions the police have come to but taking away all the notes and trying to work out the solution for himself. When he does so, he expounds it at great length and with mock-modesty as an "essay in Watsoniana", inviting Alleyn to destroy all his arguments. Needless to say, he is deeply shocked when Alleyn does so and even more so when he finds out that the local Inspector had come to the right conclusion and at least one of his great deductions had been made by the inn-keeper's son as well.

Of course, simply looking at all the evidence and getting it wrong is not the only and not even the most important characteristic of Watsonism. A Watson is the detective's companion who is not stupid (with the exception of Captain Hastings) but not brilliant either, he follows the investigation and makes some deductions, which are usually though not absolutely inevitably wrong and he writes up the cases in one way or another. Above all, the story is told from the Watson's point of view whether it is in the first or the third person.

Does Nigel Bathgate confirm to those characteristics? Well, no.

He is very rarely Alleyn's companion from the beginning. In two novels, A Man Lay Dead and Death in Ecstasy he is there from the start of events because he is himself involved. In both of them he is, in fact, the outsider from whose point of view part of the story is written. In only one, Enter a Murderer, does he accompany Alleyn from the very beginning: a friend of Felix Gardener, the star of the play The Rat and the Beaver, he is given two tickets and, his fiancée, Angela being out of town, he invites his friend the Chief Inspector to accompany him. As Alleyn explains at the end, there was a unique aspect to the play [SPOILER ALERT]:
Thanks to you I was able to watch the murder in comfort from a fifteen-and-sixpenny stall provided by the murderer. 
In the other novels Bathgate is visited by Alleyn, who refers to him as his Boswell rather than his Watson, for a discussion (The Nursing Home Murder) or he manages to muscle his way in as a friendly journalist who will help in return for a scoop and is ready to submit to Alleyn's censorship (Artists in Crime and Overture to Death).  In Surfeit of Lampreys he is summoned by that obnoxious family to help them in their difficulties and is seen by the outsider whose point of view is followed through most of the book, Roberta Gray, as a pleasant, red-faced young man with a moustache.

Bathgate's own comment is: "As you know I'm Alleyn's Watson." Alleyn describes him as "keeping a briefing watch" and adds:
Bathgate is remarkably well equipped as a liaison officer between the press, yourselves and the police.
Somehow one cannot imagine Sherlock Holmes saying that about Dr Watson. Bathgate, one assumes, remains the Alleyns' friend but is ever more distant from the investigation. In Final Curtain he is seen briefly, still in uniform though he is back at his job as a journalist (could he have been a military correspondent during the war?) when he hands over his description of the rather ghastly Ancred family whose patriarch, the great Sir Henry Ancred, the GOM of British theatre, Troy is about to paint. He is then heard on the telephone informing Alleyn of the latest development in the twisted saga of the Ancred Will.

The final appearance is in Swing, Brother, Swing where he is described as of the Evening Chronicle, having been of the Evening Mirror before the war. As usual, he appears in Alleyn's office, hoping for a scoop and is allowed in on some of the investigation though considerably less than in the earlier novels. In return he provides information about the world of journalism.

It is true that in the earlier novels Bathgate, usually with his fiancée Angela North is sent off to find out a few things about the doings of some ridiculous Soviet club (A Man Lay Dead and The Nursing Home Murder) or to discuss matters with a suspect or two (Death in Ecstasy). He is asked several times to sit quietly in the corner and take short-hand notes and off his own bat he produces notes and summaries of the cases, which may or may not help Alleyn. He also writes the cases up in his "rag" though we never read those articles and assume them to be on the popular side. He writes about Alleyn between cases as well and is, probably, the author of that embarrassing soubriquet "Handsome Alleyn".

Above all, we do not see events from his point of view except in the two that he begins by being invited to a country house week-end (A Man Lay Dead) or by wandering into the ceremony of a shady cult and witnessing a murder (Death in Ecstasy). Ngaio Marsh was quite fond of the outsider from whose point of view all or part of the novel is written and in those two it happened to be Bathgate. In others we have two recent arrivals from New Zealand (Roberta Gray in A Surfeit of Lampreys and Martyn Tarne in Opening Night), the secretary of a great Shakespearian actor, stuck in New Zealand during the war and longing to get back to Britain (Colour Scheme) or even Troy Alleyn (Artists in Crime, Final Curtain and, especially, A Clutch of Constables). The tiresome Ricky Alleyn acts as the outsider in Last Ditch. Other novels have other outsiders but once the investigation begins, with very few exceptions, it is Alleyn from whose point of view the story is told. There is no Watson in those novels.

It would be interesting to know why Marsh abandoned Bathgate after Swing, Brother, Swing. He could have carried on being a journalist who popped up from time to time, offering help and demanding a (moderated) scoop, giving news of his wife and son, who is Alleyn's godson, taking the Alleyns and their friend Katti Bostock out to the theatre as it is mentioned at the beginning of Final Curtain. For some reason she decided against that.


  1. I have noticed many a Watson in the past, but I can safely say that I haven't *thought* about Watsonism for many a long year - probably since first reading that Agatha Christie novel. So thanks for getting the brain cells going!

  2. Excellent and enjoyable article. Personally, I'd define a Watson rather more loosely (because I'm not convinced it's a concept that needs to be set in stone,and I think it's capable of development away from the Conan Doyle template), but I do see the force of your argument in favour of a strict definition of Watsonism

  3. The only aspect of Watsonism that is, in my opinion, essential is the point of view. The reader has to identify with the Watson character and see the developments from his or her perspective.