Thursday, 7 January 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Off With His Head (1958)

Alternative title: Death of a Fool
Edition: William Collins
Having in her previous novel, Scales of Justice, written a fair imitation of Agatha Christie, in Off With His Head Marsh attempts an imitation of certain aspects of Dorothy Sayers. Marsh always has a style which is more like Christie than Sayers, and this she keeps; it is the setting which reminds me of Sayers. In several of her books, Sayers took a particular part of English culture and wrote a mystery absolutely steeped in that culture: bellringing in The Nine Tailors, advertising in Murder Must Advertise, and Oxbridge in Gaudy Night. Off With His Head attempts the same with the peculiar world of the village folk dance and its much mangled pagan origins.

On each Sword Wednesday, that nearest the winter solstice, the inhabitants of the two remote villages of High and Low Mardian gather for a dance. The climax of this is a sword dance in which the Five Sonse cut off the head of their father, the Fool in a sort of mime in which the blood is provided by a rabbit's head; the Fool then hides for a time, to reappear at the end, resurrected. The dancers this year - and, indeed, every recent year - are really a father and his five sons; and this year the father is really killed.

There are several reasons why this novel is not among Marsh's best. She manages to make the background rather dull, that the way that modern morris dancing seems so silly is a problem. She continually emphasises the pagan roots, the parallels with the Adonis myth as explored in Frazer's Golden Bough, and explicitly distances her characters from the idiocies of the folk movement, but her invented dance, a synthesis of elements from real dances, still seems artificial.

The major problem with this novel is the stereotypical parade of suspects. There is the German folklore expert, desperate to see the dance and an object of suspicion to the villagers because of the war; she makes herself an object of suspicion to the police because of her fear of them derived from her experiences as an opponent of Nazism in pre-war Germany, the occasion for many annoying remarks along the lines of "It couldn't happen here." There is the epileptic, one of the sones, viewed as an idiot by the villagers but considered capable of killing without knowing what he was doing. There are the other sons, keen to move the family business into the twentieth century against the wishes of their father. Those who do not ever really come into the picture include a pair of young lovers, a standard accessory in crime fiction; these are among the more annoying of their kind. None of the characters are more than sketchy stereotypes; all in all, Off With His Head is one of Marsh's worst novels.

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