Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tuesday Night Blogs: Ngaio Marsh and the naming of names

As part of this exercise, the results of which can be followed on Moira Redmond's splendid blog, I have been trying to re-read all the Marsh novels in order. Trying and failing with some of them, I have to admit, either because I find Morris dancing intolerably boring especially when it is linked to a description of an old-fashioned feudal village with an old-fashioned feudal lady of the manor (Off With His Head or Death of a Fool in the US) or because some of the novels are just too dull (for instance Swing, Brother, Swing).

I have now entered the post-war period, which produced some excellent novels (Clutch of Constables, Opening Night, When in Rome and Light Thickens are among my favourite Marsh books), some real duds (see above and add Last Ditch to that) and some ho-hum in between ones, one of which is Scales of Justice, the one I have reached.

Scales of Justice is one of the English village mysteries. I have not added them up but it does seem to me that Ngaio Marsh wrote more of them than Agatha Christie did. She certainly had more grand families and continued to have them after the war, when social mores and economic realities changed considerably. Christie knew that but she lived in England. Other writers like E. C. R. Lorac also knew that but she, too, lived in England. Marsh lived mostly in New Zealand and visited England. Her village mysteries were a little uncertain in tone even before the war and became very shaky after it.

To be fair, there are several references, not least by Alleyn, to the fact that the feudal family of Scales of Justice, the Lacklanders, have money and a life style that few can afford in the mid-fifties (the book was published in 1958). Apparently, they are and have always been known as lucky Lacklanders and the money comes from various spectacular sweepstake and racing winnings, none of which would have been taxed. At this point Josephine Tey, who was interested in horses and race meetings, would have shown the Lacklanders as discussing the horses they own and forthcoming events but Marsh does not.

It is the District Nurse who expounds most eloquently the joys of living in a feudal society and resents any suggestion that there might be a few problems underneath the happy and settled surface. (It is not at all clear, incidentally, the Marsh realized that the healthcare system had changed in Britain with the creation, for better or worse, of the NHS.) The reader is slightly disappointed to find at the end of the book that the District Nurse's attitude is that of the novelist's despite one or two tart comments by Alleyn. The outsider turns out to be the murderer, just as everyone had hoped and for whom only Inspector Fox feels any compassion; the shadows of past sins are not simply shortened but practically erased; and Nurse Kettle, like some latter-day Pippa, goes on her way reminding herself that God's in His Heaven and all is right with the part of the world she lives in.

Nurse Kettle! What a wonderful name, evocative of practically everything one knows about nursing and the behaviour of nurses. Then again, the name of the feudal family is Lacklander with an immediate link to English history, particularly to King John Lackland, except that they are lucky and he was not.

This brings me to my main theme, which ties in with a previous posting of mine, about Marsh's wonderful literary abilities: she chose the most evocative names for her characters. Partly, it has to be assumed, this came from her theatrical background with Shakespeare, other Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights as well as seventeenth and eighteenth century comedies for an example.

She herself explained how she arrived at her hero's name: Alleyn after the great Elizabethan actor and founder of Dulwich College, her father's alma mater and Roderick because she had met somebody of that name during a visit to the Highlands of Scotland. When she thought of the woman Alleyn was to fall in love with, she wanted a very plain, worthy first name and an odd surname. She created Agatha Troy, who signed her pictures and was known by all those close to her, including her husband, by the surname, which has a forcefulness that goes well with her personality. Death in White Tie, said Marsh once, could have been called The Siege of Troy, although Alleyn does not use underhand Greek methods.

People who know Alleyn call him Rory and those who know his wife call her Troy but her cousin P. E. Garbel, a slightly confused but very likeable character in Spinsters in Jeopardy, thinks of them as cousins Roddy and Aggie, thus showing her own rather odd way of looking at the world.

There are many examples of the happy naming of names in Marsh's novels. What could be a more splendid name for an actor, playwright, director and theatre manager than Peregrine Jay (Death at the Dolphin and Light Thickens)? The Lampreys were presumably given that surname in order to produce the punning title, which then, sadly, had to be changed for the American audience to Death of a Peer.

Then there is the playwright Aubrey Mandrake in Death and the Dancing Footman, whose original name is Stanley Footling. Both of those are guaranteed to bring a smile to the reader's face. The squire of Pen Cuckoo, who rather fancies himself as a gay dog, has the eighteenth century name Jocelyn Jerningham, while his son goes by the far more sober Henry Jerningham (Overture to Death). The rector of Winston St Giles in the same novel and in Death and the Dancing Footman is Walter Copeland, a name that assures one of his High Church tendencies. His daughter, an actress, is a very modern Diana.

My favourite name is perhaps the doorman's in Opening Night. Fred Badger takes one right back to the rude mechanics of Midsummer Night's Dream.

I am rather fond of Marsh's theatre names as well. The Unicorn turns up in several novels if only in passing mention (there is, in fact, a children's theatre in London called the Unicorn); the Jupiter in the short story I Can Find My Way Out becomes the Vulcan by the time of Opening Night but that does not save it from having another murder; while the Dolphin (vaguely based on the Mermaid though most emphatically on the other side of the Thames) keeps its name and also has a second murder in it. There really is no escape from the Eumenides.


  1. Great piece - I completely agree with you. Marsh had shaky moments, but she was very surefooted with names. I love the list of artists in Artists in Crime, strange but satisfying names.

  2. Over three years ago, I read Marsh's books through Opening Night, and have not returned to Marsh's books since. I will possibly try some of your post-war favorites, rather than try to read the remaining ones in order.