Monthly Archives: September 2015

Ngaio Marsh – The Nursing Home Murder

I’ve started an occasional re-reading of Ngaio Marsh’s thirty-two detective novels and am enjoying them enormously.

The Nursing Home Murder, published in 1935, was Marsh’s third crime novel. It’s interesting to see what settings a crime writer chose when they were starting out. Her first novel, A Man Lay Dead used the classic Golden Age country house party. The second, Enter A Murderer takes place in her beloved theatre-land. The Nursing Home Murder – well the clue’s in the name – is set around a private London hospital run by an eminent surgeon.

The victim is the Home Secretary who dies inexplicably, shortly after a successful operation for peritonitis. At least three people among the medical staff had a motive for murder.

Although written first, this novel reminds me somewhat of a great favourite, Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger (published in 1944) and also P.D James’s A Mind To Murder, written in 1963 and set in a London clinic. We get a closed circle of suspects – in this case around the operating table – and a dramatic build-up of tension. A patient at the mercy of masked and gowned figures, menace in what should be a place of safety, strong lights and shadows, scalpels, syringes, cylinders and deadly intent.

This novel was dramatized in The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries first shown on the BBC in 1996 . Ngaio Marsh’s sleuth, Detective Inspector Roderick (Rory) Alleyn was played by Patrick Malahide. It has been said that he was mis-cast but not by us. He’s a quietly compelling actor who gave a wonderful performance, bringing out the sensitivity beneath Alleyn’s slightly facetious manner.

In this novel – before he meets his great love Agatha Troy – Alleyn cuts a curiously lonely figure; eating solitary dinners in restaurants or his bachelor flat, attended by an elderly Russian manservant. His ‘unofficial Watson’ (Alleyn’s words) is the eager young journalist Nigel Bathgate, who disappears from later novels.

Though in the upper-class mould of Lord Peter Wimsey and Mr. Albert Campion; unlike them, Alleyn is a working policeman, a Scotland Yard detective. The reader is given interesting glimpses of his daily routine when he isn’t involved with murder.

The drama is faithful to the novel except in two important instances. The period was changed to be immediately post-war. Perhaps this isn’t such a great liberty when you recall that like Agatha Christie, Marsh was writing over several decades. For a name synonymous with the Golden Age, it’s surprising to recall that her last novel was published in 1982. However the change in decade meant that in a sub-plot, communist anarchists were changed to Zionists, which I don’t think worked so well.

Part of the interest in period detective novels is that social mores have changed so much. Writers were spoilt for choice with motives that simply no longer matter. Ngaio Marsh is perhaps a little less fashionable now than Christie, Allingham and Sayers – often known as the four ‘Queens of the Golden Age.’ I think her novels are up there with the best, intricately plotted, elegant, witty and fun. She was very good at the psychology of her times. The motive in The Nursing Home Murder is unusual and chilling.

Ngaio Marsh was also skilled at vivid characterisation, from the very likeable Alleyn and Inspector Fox ( superbly played by William Simons); to the quirky suspects of West End theatre, society, the art world and ordinary working people. All shades of pre-war London seen through the eyes of an outsider from New Zealand. She did some great classic village mysteries too.

Ngaio Marsh is not usually thought of as a great writer of place. In common with most inter-war writing, her descriptions are sparing. Though she could certainly write atmosphere when she liked. I’ll finish with this evocative glimpse of London by night.

“The river, busy with its night traffic, had an air of being apart and profoundly absorbed. There were the wet black shadows, broken lights, and the dark, hurried flow of the Thames towards the sea. London’s water-world was about its nightly business. The roar of the streets became unimportant and remote down here, within sound of shipping sirens and the cold lap of deep water against stone.”

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Seven Days To Noon

“Seven Days to Noon” is a tense thriller produced and directed by the Boulting Brothers in 1950, which won an Academy Award for best story at the Oscars.

It remains one of the best films made about London in the post-war years – before the developers got a chance to ruin the place with skyscrapers and inappropriate and out-of-scale development. Just watching this film to see how London used to be is a treat.

But back to the plot.

Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones) is a nuclear scientist working at a research centre – somewhere like Aldermaston, though called Wallingford in the film – on developing atomic bombs. The destructive power of weapons he’s worked on has been playing on his mind for a while. He cracks when a nuclear bomb that’s portable is produced.

Deciding that the world needs a sharp lesson, he steals one of the devices and sends a note to the Prime Minister (Ronald Adam – clearly suggested by Clement Attlee) stating that unless the British government publicly abandons its stockpiling of nuclear weapons, he will detonate the stolen weapon and destroy the centre of London in seven days’ time.

It soon becomes apparent that Willingdon has the weapon and Detective Superintendent Folland (Andre Morell) of Special Branch is tasked with capturing the errant scientist and recovering the device before the rapidly approaching deadline.

The film tells the story of the chase from both points of view. We see Folland aided by Willingdon’s deputy Steve Lane (Hugh Cross) and the scientist’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) in pursuit.

But more tellingly we see the story from the point of view of Willingdon himself as he disappears into the mass of people who live in London, blending in with the crowds, seeking accommodation in still gaslit boarding houses. The accuracy of the portrayal of working people is superbly done.

Here we see not the patronising caricatures of working folk as portrayed by some film-makers of the period, but real folk, terrifically acted by the players concerned, who seem to have come in from the streets of a very real London – then as now going through a sustained period of austerity.

One of the many joys of the piece is a faded music-hall star Goldie Phillips (played beautifully by Olive Sloane, an actress fascinating in herself – she’d played small parts in films from the silent days of the 1920s. This was her one big lead and she is terrific!)

Goldie takes in Professor Willingdon, unaware until too late of who he is. As London is evacuated he decides to hide out in her bedsit until the fateful Noon comes nearer.

As he hides out, London is evacuated. There are near documentary scenes of thousands of people being loaded on to trains, lorries and buses. Traffic jams block the roads as cars flee the capital. Then the silent streets of an empty London.

The viewer can only admire the skill of the director and producers in making a film on the real streets of London that portray so dramatically such matters. I doubt you could stop the traffic long enough to do it today. The People of London get a credit as the titles roll for their part in making the film.

Gradually the dragnet closes in on Willingdon as soldiers and the police search the streets from the suburbs to the heart of the city. And…

But I’ll stop there, for this is a film that you’ll certainly enjoy watching all the way through. Gripping stuff!

Few films of the 1950s capture the atmosphere of post-war London quite so well. Made at a time when many producers were looking backwards in time with war stories and even further back, “Seven Days to Noon” captures aspects of British society too often overlooked.

And it has at its heart the question of the morality of producing weapons of mass destruction. Is Willingdon actually mad, or is he sane and ahead of his time? The authorities who are trying to thwart his plans seem to hold the moral high ground, but do they?

“Seven Days to Noon” is a neglected masterpiece of film-making, with good strong characterisation and tense and vivid direction.

It deserves to be better known.

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Frank Marker – Public Eye

I have happy memories of the television series “Public Eye”, starring Alfred Burke as inquiry agent (note that, inquiry agent, not private eye) Frank Marker. Recently we bought the surviving episodes – some of the earliest have been lost – on DVD and we’ve spent many enjoyable evenings watching the programme all over again.

The series originally aired in 1965 with a London setting, being a ratings winner until 1975. In the course of the series, Marker relocates to Birmingham, Brighton, Windsor and Chertsey, and spends some time in prison after being set up.

“Public Eye” is the complete antithesis to British TV series such as “The Saint” or “The Avengers”.

It’s rooted very firmly in reality. Each episode is usually self-contained, though there are several story arcs over the years. Frank Marker deals with the kind of problems that a real-life inquiry agent might have; minor fraud, divorces, petty crime and so on. There is very little violence, and really nothing in the way of car chases etc. This is gritty reality, character driven and all the better for that.

The great joy of the piece is Alfred Burke’s portrayal of Frank Marker. Completely realistic, understated, a loner with few friends and no love life. A masterclass in acting technique which some modern students of drama would do well to observe. You get no feeling here of an actor “acting”. Alfred Burke was a fine performer and he simply seems to become Marker. It’s hard to believe the character isn’t real.

The cases too are rooted at ground-level. They are interesting not because they are high drama but because they deal with so many aspects of the human condition. The people who seek Marker’s help are in exactly the sort of messes real people get in to. It’s very easy to identify with Marker’s clients. Most of us have been there – or nearly there.

There are a few recurring characters. In the Brighton episodes, soon after Marker is released from Ford Open Prison – and they used its exterior for some scenes – Marker stays as a boarder with Mrs Mortimer (Pauline Delaney). She becomes a friend during that series and briefly reappears when Marker relocates to Windsor. The suggestion in the scripts is that they might become more than friends. Fortunately, it never happens. The lonely character of Marker would be diminished by any romantic development. Can you imagine any scriptwriter today being so restrained?

Marker has an ambivalent relationship with the police. At first they tend to be suspicious of him, but this melds into friendship and co-operation. He works well with Detective Inspector Percy Fairbank (Ray Smith) during the Windsor episodes. Marker briefly has a job in a detection agency with former copper Ron Gash (Peter Childs), though, happily, he soon departs to walk the familiar and – to the viewer welcoming – lonely road.

What is great about Marker is his sense of morality. He may occasionally make his way through the dark alleys of a grubby world, but he is never contaminated by what happens. The character has a sense of decency which is rare these days. He may walk the borderline of legality but he knows the difference between right and wrong – and all for his fee of “six pounds a day plus expenses”.

Having loved a series years ago, you do wonder how it will stand up to examination years later? In the case of “Public Eye” the answer is very well indeed. The series is as gripping as I remember. And now there is the extra layer of revisiting an England of decades ago – seeing so many reminders of my own past. “Public Eye” is not only a masterclass of good acting, but a valuable instruction in how to write television scripts.

England has changed a great deal in four decades – not much for the better. But a great many things have remained the same. A television company could air “Public Eye” at peak time now and I believe it would find a very appreciative audience. You can still relate to Marker, his associates and clients.

What is really grand is that the scenes can be presented long, allowing for real acting and character development, rather than the brief snapshots we tend to get in modern dramas. And there is a refreshing absence of annoying music when the actors are acting. Perhaps modern directors might learn from this series the dramatic tensions induced by silence. There is, however, very atmospheric jazz-inclined, theme music.

“Public Eye” is British classic television at its very best. The box set we bought online has all the surviving episodes plus an excellent paperback about the series with a very detailed episode guide by Andrew Pixley – a fascinating account of how a television series is made.

If you fancy something different to watch during the forthcoming dark evenings, give “Public Eye” a try. A wonderful reminder of just how good British television used to be.

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The Prisoner Of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda
(and Rupert of Hentzau)

Anthony Hope’s novel “The Prisoner of Zenda” became a bestseller when it was first published in 1894 – and has remained in print for the past 121 years. It is also the only thriller I can recall that begins with the hero eating a boiled egg.

Thriller did I say? Well, yes, the Kingdom of Ruritania is fictitious therefore it can’t be an historical novel. And it is set much in the period when Hope was writing. I suppose, to use an old-fashioned term, we might call it a swashbuckler. But it remains a very thrilling one.

The story is familiar to many because of two really good film versions (starring respectively Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., and Stewart Grainger and James Mason – other minor film adaptations and parodies aren’t worth bothering with).

I suspect fewer people these days have ever read the novel. Which is a pity because it’s a cracking read, written in a style that seems as modern as if it were written last week. Not having re-read it for about forty years I was surprised how good it is. Many of the misconceptions of my memory of it were easily dismissed looking again. For instance I’d remembered the heroine Princess Flavia as a bit of a drip, which is the way she’s usually portrayed in the films. She isn’t. She’s a strong well-rounded character up there with the leading men.

The plot is relatively simple. Rudolf Rassendyll, a distant relative of the royal house of Ruritania returns to that kingdom for a holiday. His resemblance (they are not identical as in the films, where the same actors had to play the part) to its wastrel king is noted and, following a sequence of events I won’t spoil for you, he is forced to take the monarch’s place.

There is a great deal of conspiracy, some sword-fights, a dramatic rescue from a castle, a bit of romance, and some hints about the wider European situation which are quite prophetic. The tale is told in the first person by Rassendyll himself.

I do wonder if the seeds of the story were planted in Hope’s mind by what happened at Mayerling in 1889, when the heir to the Austrian Empire and his lover committed suicide at a hunting lodge. The stories are different, but the Mayerling incident triggered off a great deal of mystery and speculation at a time when Hope might have been contemplating his book.

The joy of the piece is the villain Rupert of Hentzau, young, dashing, immediately likeable for all his erring ways. He just happens, through personal ambition, to be on the wrong side. If you like swashbucklers he is iconic – and his influence has permeated down to a number of lesser works. The other villain, Duke Michael, the King’s brother is tamer by comparison.

Interestingly, there is a kind of social and political edge to the conflict of the book. In the capital of Ruritania, Strelsau, there is an old town and a new town. The new town backs the king and the hero’s side in the debate as to who would be the best ruler. But in the old town, where the working people live, there is greater support for Duke Michael and Rupert of Hentzau. I often found myself wondering whether I was backing the wrong side, as we’re supposed to like and be fighting for the existing king and the status quo?

The story ends with one of the best – and realistic – rescue sequences in literature. Terrific stuff! And a sad but satisfying ending.

Anthony Hope (properly Sir Anthony Hope-Hawkins, born 1863) began his career as a barrister, becoming a full-time writer at much the same time as “The Prisoner of Zenda” was published. Interestingly, his first novel “A Man of Mark” (1890) was self-published. He wrote a great many, now mostly forgotten, plays, lots of other novels, often set in fictional countries, and journalism. Apart from the two Ruritanian novels, his other great hit was “The Dolly Dialogues”, about Victorian society and still worth a read. He was knighted in 1918 and died in 1933.

Following the great success of “The Prisoner of Zenda” he wrote a sequel “Rupert of Hentzau” four years later. Rassendyll returns to Ruritania to settle matters left outstanding after his first adventure. Though “The Prisoner of Zenda” is told by Rassendyll in the first person, this second and longer story is narrated by Fritz von Tarlenheim, one of the secondary heroes of the first book, though there are accounts of certain incidents by other players in the drama, Tarlenheim’s own account often framing theirs.

This interesting demonstration of narrative technique is a positive master-class in how to use first person properly. It’s worth studying for that technical aspect alone.

“Rupert of Hentzau” is, in many ways a better novel than its predecessor, both in character psychology and plot development. A swashbuckler too but, well, something finer and more ambitious. A swashbuckler that is a tragedy, perhaps with that hint of the Mayerling incident thrown in. The characters are never pure heroes or villains. You can see where their ideas come from, and most have an uneasy recognition of what might be the consequences of their actions.

And it has the joy of a perfect villain in Rupert of Hentzau himself, too good to be literally written off in one novel. Rupert is given more space than in “The Prisoner of Zenda”. We are allowed to see the depth of his motivation. And few rogues are as likeable. The final drama of the novel is satisfying; it has a roundness, a completion. A fine piece of writing.

The two books should really be read one after the other to get the full effect. They are novels you can get quite lost in. Hope has that good novelist’s gift of leading you entirely into his world.

I had maligned Anthony Hope in my memory of four decades as a second-rater. He isn’t. These two novels are page-turners of the very best kind and I’m happy that my misconceptions were so pleasantly banished. Hope was a much better novelist than he is usually given credit for. And his Ruritanian swashbucklers are grand pieces of their kind. The fact that they’ve never been out of print and always had an audience proves that.

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