Wednesday, 11 November 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Scales of Justice (1955)

Edition: Fontana, 1976
Review number: 163

This is, I think, the first Ngaio Marsh novel which is reminiscent of Agatha Christie's village-set murder mysteries; even those which have a village setting (such as Death at the Bar) have had a rather different atmosphere. That this book is more like Christie is largely due to the upper-class nature of the main characters and the mechanism of the underlying puzzle.

The village of Swevenings has had the same group of upper class families for hundreds of years: the Lacklanders, the most important, the Carterettes, the Syces and the Phinns. The head of the Lacklanders, Sir Harold, as he lies dying, entrusts the publication of the memoirs of his distinguished ambassadorial career to Colonel Carterette, who is specifically instructed not to leave anything out. This is because the memoirs contain the confession of a scandal over which the young Ludovic Danberry-Phinn killed himself though the real villain was in fact the ambassador. The Colonel is also currently embroiled in a dispute about fishing rights with his neighbour, Octavius Danberry-Phinn.

Naturally, the Colonel is murdered; found by the river, the huge trout whose pursuit caused the dispute lying by his body. Alleyn is called in to investigate.

Scales of Justice is a conventional murder mystery, but is well-enough done to rank it among Marsh's better novels; this is a little unusual because she normally writes better when her plot takes her outside the bounds of the conventional novel in imitation of Agatha Christie. The upper-class houseparty, which she had used to death in her earlier novels, has grown distinctly stale; perhaps the fact that the village setting was new to her helps.

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