Tuesday, 7 July 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Colour Scheme (1943)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 82

This novel marks something of a return to form for Ngaio Marsh. After a sequence with hackneyed plots and stereotyped settings (mainly upper-class house-parties), she comes up with something rather different. This is reflected in the title of the novel; instead of the word "death" being prominent in a phrase with little to do with the plot, we have a subtle hint toward what's actually going on.

Although there must be about five earlier Alleyn novels which are written and set during the war, this is the first to take notice of the fact. It's set in New Zealand, which often seems to be an indicator of the best of the series, at a volcanic spa resort.

As well as the family that runs the resort, the principal characters are four visitors; one, Maurice Questing, has been there for some time and is suspected by the family of being a spy responsible for light signals sent out to sea causing the sinking of ships leaving a nearby port; the next two to arrive are the famous actor Geoffrey Gaunt (who seems from the roles he has famously played to be based on Laurence Olivier) and his secretary Dikon Bell; and lastly Sebastian Falls, a sinister character who might be the person who murders Questing.

The plot is interesting, and the means of death extremely unusual (and unpleasant - falling into boiling mud). The spy motif and the spa setting make Colour Scheme slightly different as crime novels go; and Ngaio Marsh's usual good writing make it well worth reading.

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