Saturday, March 19, 2016


SINGING IN THE SHROUDS by Ngaio Marsh (1958)

Reviewed by Lucy Fisher

All aboard for murder. The Cape Farewell steams out to sea, carrying a serial strangler who says it with flowers and a little song. Behind, on a fogbound London dock, lies his latest lovely victim; and on board, working undercover to identify him before he strikes again, is Inspector Roderick Alleyn. But-with a collection of neurotic, bombastic, shifty, and passionate passengers at one another's throats-how long can he keep the investigation on course?

The "flower murderer" has strangled several girls at ten-day intervals, and strewn their bodies with crushed flowers and broken necklaces. The action plays out over several days as they travel to the tropics. The various characters reveal more about themselves (I believe this is known as "character development") as Alleyn tries to steer the conversation towards what they were all doing on the night of the murders - particularly the last, which took place the night they sailed. The flower murderer sings as he kills - but his voice could be a man's or a woman's.

The story starts on the bus transporting the passengers to the docks – they all reveal their characters in various ways. Father Jourdain chats to a fellow brother who has come to see him off, Mrs D-B discusses the other passengers with a friend ("My dear!"). Miss Abbott catches up on the murders in Mr Merryman's newspaper and he tetchily requests her to stop reading over his shoulder. Tim points out places of interest to Jemima.

Once on board, both the captain and Dale fall for Mrs Dillington Blick; Mr Merryman is inclined to get cross about pedantic points (he hates the "tele-viz-ee-on"); Father Jourdain tries to keep the peace. We enjoy the cruise with everybody as they give cocktail parties, stop off in the Canary Islands and rig up a swimming pool on deck.

But then a broken doll is found - strangled with a string of beads. Alleyn takes several of the men into his confidence (after they've established alibis). The captain is already in the know, but refuses to believe there's a murderer aboard. Father Jourdain and Tim Makepeace agree to make sure the ladies are never alone. Mrs D-B is delighted to find herself shadowed by some bloke wherever she goes. Her nickname for Alleyn is "the gorgeous brute".

But they fail to prevent the next murder - and the reveal of the killer's identity is quite dramatic. Less convincing is the Freudian explanation for his actions. I prefer Father Jourdain's (sin).

And yes, social attitudes are of their time. Society was becoming more accepting, but homosexuality was treated rather nervously as a joke. (The law was not relaxed until 1967.) Both Marsh and the characters laugh at Dennis and Miss Abbott. The Cuddies, also, are turned into grotesques, with their tales of masonic lodges and each other's ailments. They even call each other "dear"!

But this is an enjoyable book, and a time-capsule of the late 50s.

Lucy Fisher is a freelance sub-editor in London who is a fan of Golden Age mysteries. This is a lightly edited version a review previously published at her blog The Art of Words.

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