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Sunday 3 March 2019

Ngaio Marsh and the Use of Symbols and Superstition.

The Golden Age
  by Carol Westron

Superstition, spiritualism and the supernatural are used by many Golden Age authors and by the writers who succeeded them. Ngaio Marsh is not alone in her use of symbols and the superstition, but she used them in a subtly different way to her fellow ‘Queens of Golden Age Detective Fiction,’ Christie, Sayers and Allingham.

Agatha Christie plays with spiritualism a great deal in her writing. In short stories, such as The Red Signal (1924) and The Last Seance (1927), which were republished in the collection The Hound of Death (1933), Christie appears to take indicate a belief in spiritualism. However, in her novels she often uses spiritualism as a clever camouflage to conceal murder. This is the case in The Sittaford Mystery (1931), where a séance is an amusement for bored upper-class young people and in Dumb Witness (1937), where those seeking solace from spiritualism are searching for meaning in their lives. In Peril at End House (1932), Hercule Poirot sets up a fake séance to flush out a murderer, while in Murder is Easy (1939), some very unpleasant undertones of Black Magic permeate the quiet village that is having such a remarkable run of sudden deaths. One of Christie’s later books, The Pale Horse (1931), mixes a cocktail of apparent scientific discoveries with older superstitions and witchcraft, cleverly illustrating the way science was becoming the new supernatural, with many people accepting that anything was possible if it was introduced under the cloak of scientific discovery.

Dorothy L. Sayers used a fake séance using a Ouija board to reveal a vital clue in Strong Poison (1930), and the image of Wimsey as Harlequin occurs more than once in Murder Must Advertise (1933), along with a strange, dream-like sequence in which a drug addict sees Wimsey connected with the Hanged Man. There is also the strange and whimsical (forgive the pun) scene in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937) where Harriet Vane encounters a benign Wimsey family ghost.

Margery Allingham also used the supernatural to add an extra frisson of horror to many of her books. Look to the Lady (1931) has a supernatural thread which runs throughout it and Sweet Danger (1933) has a truly terrifying scene in which a man who practises Black Magic reveals his homicidal insanity. A more subtle use of the supernatural and symbolism is threaded throughout one of Allingham’s greatest novels, The Tiger in the Smoke (1952), in which the chilling Jack Havoc believes in what he calls ‘The Science of Luck’, which leads him to kill several people in pursuit of a treasure that turns out to be a religious icon, unsaleable as a stolen article, and brings him to his doom. Allingham uses the fog that engulfs London throughout much of a story to enhance the sense of evil that is present throughout the book.

However, it can be argued that it is Ngaio Marsh who uses both symbolism and the supernatural, in its many manifestations, most prolifically, but subtly, as part of the very fabric of her books. Marsh was born and brought up in New Zealand and trained at art college before entering the theatre, and her life experience is ingrained in her novels, which often draw on her knowledge of Maori culture, and theatrical and artistic life. Marsh’s long series of books feature the elegant and cultured Scotland Yard detective Roderick Alleyn, who is a connoisseur of both art and drama. In Artists In Crime (1938), Alleyn meets and falls in love with artist Agatha Troy and subsequently marries her, and the authenticity of descriptions of Troy’s art and the artistic community are clearly due to Marsh’s mastery of her subject.

The theatre was Marsh’s foremost love and the setting for many of her books, and these are full of thesuperstitions that dominate the profession. In Opening Night (1951), the first thing that young Martyn Tarne hears about the Vulcan Theatre is that, five years previously, an actor had murdered the man in the next door dressing room by blowing down the tube of the gas-fire and extinguishing the flame. The theatre had been known as an unlucky house ever since and the new owner had changed the name and forbidden any mention of the death. When another actor is killed, in apparently identical circumstances, the superstitious fear of the supernatural threatens to overwhelm the new theatrical production and Alleyn has to ensure that it does not distort his investigation of the crime.

Marsh’s two books set in the Dolphin Theatre are amongst her most atmospheric novels and both have superstition and the power of certain symbolic objects woven throughout them. In Death at The Dolphin (1967), playwright Peregrine Jay falls in love with the abandoned theatre, which in its sad state has the air of a spectre of past glories. ‘The lane turned sharply to the left; it now ran parallel with the river. He lifted his umbrella. Up it went, like a curtain, on The Dolphin. At that moment, abruptly, there was no more rain. There was even sunshine. It washed thinly across the stage-house of The Dolphin and picked it out for Peregrine’s avid attention. There it stood: high, square and unbecoming, the object of his greed and deep desire. … He hurried on until, on his left, he came to a pub called the Wharfinger’s Friend and then the bomb-site and then, fully displayed, the wounded Dolphin itself.’

Peregrine encounters the present owner of the theatre, the millionaire Vassily Conducis, in a meeting which is, in itself, filled with symbolism. Soon after, Conducis shows him a most remarkable object that he has in his possession:
‘Peregrine pulled gingerly at the ribbon ends and turned back the silk wrapping.He had exposed a glove. A child’s glove. Stained as if by water it was the colour of old parchment and finely wrinkled like an old, old face. It had been elegantly embroidered with tiny roses in gold and scarlet. A gold tassel, now blackened and partly unravelled was attached to the tapered gauntlet. It was the most heartrending object Peregrine had ever seen.’

This glove is purported to have been a birthday gift to Hamnet Shakespeare and a note with it is alleged to be written by Shakespeare himself. This pathetic, damaged object is central to the book, not merely as the inspiration for the play that Peregrine writes about it, but also as an icon in itself. It becomes a symbol of Shakespeare’s genius and the original glove has a power and significance that the superb copy made by designer Jeremy Jones can never have. As so often occurs with such objects, its uniqueness tempts those who wish to preserve it for the nation, but it is its monetary value that leads to murder.

Light Thickens (1987) was also set in The Dolphin Theatre, some years after Death at the Dolphin. Peregrine Jay’s reputation as a writer and director has grown and he is taking the bold step of directing Macbeth, or the Scottish Play, as most of the cast insist on calling it, because they are afraid that using the play’s name will bring ill-luck. Superstition dogs the rehearsals, acerbated by a series of malicious jokes. One of the actors who is especially effected goes to extreme lengths to ward off the Macbeth curse. ‘Nina Gaythorne came into her minute flat in Westminster and began a sort of de-lousing ritual. Without even waiting to take off her gloves she scuffled in her handbag, produced a crucifix which she kissed, and laid on the table, a clove of garlic and her prayer book. She opened the latter, put on her spectacles, crossed herself and read aloud the 91st Psalm.’ ... ‘Her belief in curses and things being lucky or unlucky was not based on any serious study but merely on the odds and ends of gossip and behaviour accumulated by four generations of theatre people.’

Other deeper superstitions abound amongst the cast. Gaston Sears, who has made the reproduction weapons for the fight scenes and has taught the actors how to use them, is to appear as an officer attending Macbeth. In this role, he intends to use his own authentic and ancient claidheamh-mor, a weapon that he believes has mystical powers: “‘Do you realise that I, who know more about the latent power of the claidheamh-mor than anyone living, have so disastrously aroused it.” ...on and on went the great voice. Ancient documents, the rune on the hilts, the history of bloodshed, formal executions, decapitation in battle...’
Alongside the darkness of Scottish superstition, there is an element drawn from Marsh’s New Zealand upbringing: Rangi, who plays the the First Witch is a Maori who, when Peregrine says that the witches should be ‘the incarnation of evil,’ gives a brief interpretation of a Maori war dance. Later, in the pub, some of the actors get Rangi drunk and ask him to reprise this:
‘“Show us, Rangi. Show us what you did. Don’t say anything, just show.”
“E-e-e-uh!” he shouted suddenly. He slapped his knees and stamped. He grimaced, his eyes glittered and his tongue whipped in and out. He held his umbrella before him like a spear and it was not funny.
It only lasted a few seconds.’

With great skill, Marsh blends this mixture of superstition to create an atmosphere of tension which ties in with the title of the book, which is taken from a quote from Macbeth, Light Thickens and the crow makes wing to th’ rooky wood.’ As rehearsals progress,‘...there was a further and marked change in the atmosphere. It wasn’t gloomy. It was oppressive and nervous. Rather like the thunderstorm... Claustrophobic. Expectant. Stifling.’

A Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) offers a light-hearted view of the Maori war dance when Henry and Friede Lamprey perform one on the wharf when Roberta Grey, their friend from New Zealand, is arriving to visit them. This bemuses of one of Roberta’s ship-board acquaintances.
‘“Good Lord, what on earth are those two people doing down there? They must be demented! Look!”
He pointed at Henry and Frid who thrust out their tongues, rolled their eyes, beat the air with their hands and stamped rhythmically.
“Extraordinary!” he ejaculated. “Who on earth can they be?”
“They are my friends,” said Roberta. “They’re doing a haka.”
“A what?”
“A Maori war-dance. It’s to welcome me. They’re completely mad.”
“Oh,” said her friend, “yes. Very funny.”’

As often happens in Marsh’s books, the innocent customs lie alongside darker supernatural activities, and, in this case, Black Magic leads to murder and the mutilation of a corpse.

‘The nurse approached her patient and... gingerly slid her hand... into the pocket. Roberta, looking up, saw the nurse’s face bleach out abruptly to the colour of parchment.
“What’s the matter?” Campbell demanded.
“She’s – she’s – got – both her hands – in her pocket.”...
… The nurse backed away..., pointing at the pocket and nodding her head.
“I’ve got her right hand,” said Campbell impatiently. “What are you talking about?”
“There are two hands in her pocket,” said the nurse, and fainted.’

Marsh has a clear respect for the Maori people and this is very evident in Colour Scheme (1943), where the Maori have a simplicity and dignity, which in a strange way, is both very different and yet similar to the British
inhabitants who, despite poverty, are clinging to old-fashioned customs of their native land.
‘Of all the Maori clans living in this remote district of the far North, Rua’s was the least sophisticated. They sang and postured as their ancestors had done and their audience were spared Maori imitations of popular ballad mongers and crooners. The words and gestures that they had used had grown out of the habit of a primitive people and told of their canoes, their tillage, their mating, and their warfare. Many of their songs, sacred to the rites of death, are not considered suitable for public performance...’ Although the Maori people are unsophisticated, their chief is capable of extraordinary diplomacy. ‘It was Rua, he decided afterwards, who saved the situation. With the adroitness of a diplomat at a difficult conference, he talked through Dr Ackrington’s furious expostulations and, without appearing to hurry, somehow succeeded in presenting the Mayoral party to Gaunt. They got through the next few minutes without an actual flare up.
It must have been Rua, Dikon decided, who asked a member of the glee club to strike up the National Anthem on the meeting house piano.’

One of Marsh’s earliest books is Death in Ecstasy (1936), in which she describes The House of the Sacred Flame, in Knocklatchers Row, London, which is officiated over by a flamboyant ‘priest’, Jasper Garnette. He holds some extraordinarily bogus services, attended by a small group of worshippers who subsidise the building and ceremonies because of needs within themselves. In describing the building and the ceremonies, Marsh’s use of superstition and symbolism is masterly. Although the lay-out of The House of the Sacred Flame resembles a traditional Anglican church, the resemblance swiftly ends. ‘Indeed, the hall looked like nothing so much as an ultra-modern art exhibition gone completely demented. From above the altar projected a long sconce holding the bronze torch from which the sanctuary flame rose in all its naphtha-like theatricality. On the altar itself was a feathered serpent, a figure carved in wood with protruding tongue and eyes made of pawa shell, a Wagnerian sort of god, a miniature totem-pole, as ill-sorted as a bunch of plenipotentiaries at Geneva. The signs of the Zodiac decorated the walls, and along the aisles were stationed at intervals some remarkable examples of modern sculpture.’ To match this, the names given to the ‘acolytes’ are all artificial contrivances from various mythologies and and the ceremonies are contrived and corrupt. It comes as no surprise that many of the people in the inner circle are kept dependant by addictive drugs.

Marsh returns to this theme in Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954), although the setting is more luxurious and wealthy. The villa where the religious group is assembled is in the south of France and known as the Chevre d’Argent, ‘a fortress built originally by the Saracens... sculptured out of the mountain.’ The villa is owned by Mr Oberon, a self-proclaimed mystic who preaches the Rites of the Sun and, according to a follower, has created a design for living that ‘transcends many of the ancient cults, drawing from each its purest essence.’ Alleyn manages to infiltrate one of Oberon’s religious ceremonies, which at first he finds contemptible. ‘Even the ritual, for what it was worth, was bogus: a vamped up synthesis, he thought, of several magic formulae. The reedy phrase trickled on like a tourist-class advertisement for Cairo, the drum throbbed and presently he sensed a stir of excitement among the initiates. The Egyptian began to chant and to increase the pace and volume of his drumming...’ As the ceremony progresses, Alleyn’s attitude towards it alters. ‘ was impossible altogether to dismiss the Rites of the Sun as cheap or ridiculous. No doubt they were both but they were also alarming.’

Both Death in Ecstasy and Spinsters in Jeopardy have their criminal roots in drug abuse. Marsh shows contempt for the false priests with their second-hand ceremonies, although she has some sympathy for some of their followers, who are victims of the priests’ manipulation and of their own weakness. In Dead Water (1964) the lines between victims and villains are far more blurred. On Portcarrow Island, a mysterious lady, dressed in green, instructs a learning disabled boy, who is crying because of the warts on his hands, to put his hands under the cold water of a small spring. The next day the warts drop off and the healing properties of the water of the spring is born. Soon the small, privately owned island is inundated by sick people desperate for a cure and the inhabitants of the island are enjoying unprecedented prosperity. The island inhabitants are far less culpable than the false priests in Death in Ecstasy and Spinsters in Jeopardy, they did not deliberately create the original story and they provide services, such as hotels and transport, for the people who visit the area. Nevertheless, they have capitalised on sick people’s desperation in a greedy and tasteless manner, renaming it Pixie Falls and fencing it off so that those who wish to reach the waters have to go through a turnstile and pay. 

The Pixie Falls business thrives until Miss Emily Pride inherits the island. Miss Emily has strong views about exploiting the sick and vulnerable and she arrives on Portcarrow determined to close down the commercial side of visiting the water. Her encounter with a young woman brings home to her even more strongly the tragedy of those visiting the island for a cure.

‘The young woman, in her turn, had knelt by the fall. She had bared the head of her baby and held her cupped hand above it. A trickle of water glittered briefly. Miss Emily sat down abruptly on a bench and shut her eyes.
When she opened them again, the young woman with the baby was coming towards her.
“Are you all right?” she asked. “Can I help you? Do you want to go in?
“I am not ill,” Miss Emily said, and added, “Thank you, my dear.”
“Oh excuse me. I’m sorry. That’s all right then.”
“Your baby. Has your baby-?”
“Well, yes. It’s a sort of deficiency, the doctor says. He just doesn’t seem to thrive. But there’ve been such wonderful reports – you can’t get away from it, can you? So I’ve got great hopes.”
She lingered on for a moment and then smiled and nodded and went away.
“Great hopes!” Miss Emily muttered. “Ah, mon Dieu! Great hopes indeed.”

This poignant scene is a strong contrast to the place Miss Emily visits next, the village shop, run by Miss Elspeth Cost, which is full of tawdry keepsakes of Pixie Falls. ‘Miss Emily... examined the welter of objects for sale. They were... fanciful reconstructions in plastic of the Spring, the waterfall and “Wally’s Cottage”; badly printed rhyme-sheets; booklets, calendars and postcards all of which covered much the same ground. Predominant amongst all these wares, cropping up everywhere, in print and in plastic, smirking even, in the form of doll or cut-out, was the Green Lady. The treatment was consistent – a verdigris-coloured garment, long yellow hair, upraised hand and a star on the head. There was a kind of madness in the prolific insistence of this effigy.’
However, in a way, Miss Cost is a victim too, for she believes in the efficacy of the water, which she thinks cured her asthma, and when this malady returns under the stress of an encounter with Miss Emily, her whole frail mental balance is disrupted. A series of malicious incidents follow, all directed at Miss Pride, including the delivery of ‘a crude plastic image of a Green Lady. A piece of ruled paper had been jammed down over the head and on it was pasted a single word of newsprint. “Death.”’

In previous books, Marsh describes sensual and corrupt religious ceremonies that were a hotch-potch of various beliefs. In Dead Water she brings alive an excruciatingly embarrassing celebration of Pixie Falls, arranged by Miss Cost, which is amateurish, disorganised and tasteless. It is a fiasco that ends in chaos when a heavy thunderstorm breaks and audience and performers flee. ‘Miss Cost, wildly at large amongst her drenched and disorganised troupe, was heard to scream: “It’s a judgement.” Unmindful they swept past her. She was deserted. Her velvet bodice leaked green dye into her blouse. Green rivulets ran down her arms. Her hair was plastered like seaweed against her face. The text of the play fell from her hand, and lay, disregarded, in the mud.’ It is not surprising that, after such a sad fiasco, comes murder.

It could be argued that When in Rome (1970) is the book in which Marsh most successfully captures the atmosphere of a haunting, powerful place of worship and the incongruity of the strangely mixed group of modern tourists that visit it. Based on the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, the fictional Basilica of San Tommaso in Pallaria is an authentic place of historical and spiritual power, in which tourists could descend through centuries of history. The atmosphere is palpable when the author who has been blackmailed into guiding the tour explains about the cult of Mithras: ‘“His was a gentle cult for those days. His worship was Mystery and the initiates passed through seven degrees. It was tough going. They underwent lustral purification, long abstinence and most severe deprivation. Women had no part of it.” … The altar was half-way down the Mithraeum. The slaughter of the Bull was indeed very beautifully carved on one face and the apotheosis of Mithras assisted by Apollo on the other.’

The atmosphere in San Tommaso is very different from the manufactured places of worship in Death in Ecstasy and Spinsters in Jeopardy, although some of the tourists are better fitted to the phoney temples. For instance, Lady Braceley would fit far better into the false worship than the real: ‘the face was not too good either. Even if one discounted the ruches under the eyes and the eyes themselves, there was still that dreadfully slack mouth. It was painted the fashionable livid colour but declared itself as unmistakeably as if it had been scarlet: the mouth of an elderly Maenad.’ In contrast the Baron and Baroness Van der Veghel are unfashionable and enthusiastic, but their smiles are those seen in ancient art: ‘A familiar smile. It took Barnaby a moment or two to place it and then he realised with quite a shock that it was the smile of the Etruscan terracotas in the Villa Giullia: the smile of Hermes and Apollo, the closed smile that sharpens the mouth like an arrowhead and – cruel, tranquil or worldly, whichever it may be – is always enigmatic. Intensely lively, it is as knowledgeable as the smile of the dead.’ It isnot surprising that in such a place , with such a cast of characters, violence swiftly erupts.

Nowadays it is not unusual for the victims of a deranged serial killer to have symbols such as flowers and
jewellery left by the body, but when Marsh wrote
Singing in the Shrouds (1958) over sixty years ago the effect on her readers must have been much stronger. The light from his flashlamp darted eccentrically up the side
alley, momentarily exhibiting a high-heeled shoe with a foot in it. The light fluttered, steadied and returned. It crept from the foot along a leg, showing a red graze through the gap in its nylon stocking. It moved on and came to rest at last on a litter of artificial pearls and fresh flowers scattered over the breast of a dead girl.’
In the same book, Marsh also used the mutilation of a doll as a symbol of the woman who had received it as a gift: ‘It was indeed broken. The head had been twisted so far and with such violence that Esmerelda now grinned over her left shoulder at a quite impossible angle. The black lace mantilla was wound tightly round the neck and lying on the rigid bosom was a litter of emerald beads and single crushed hyacinth.’ 

Many crime fiction authors have used symbols and superstition during the Golden Age and after it, but very few have used it so subtly as Ngaio Marsh and with such effectiveness to enhance the atmosphere and provide
motivation in their books.

All of the novels mentioned in this article are available as paperbacks and on Kindle.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

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