Thursday, 28 January 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Singing in the Shrouds (1958)

Edition: Fontana, 1967
Review number: 197

London is terrified by a serial killer, who strangles young women at ten day intervals, scattering them with flowers and singing over the bodies before disappearing into the night. Just before the cruise lines the SS Cape Farewell sails, he strikes again, at a girl bringing flowers to the ship as a farewell gift to one of the passengers. She is clutching the torn-off fragment of an embarkation notice, evidence to the police that the killer may be one of the passengers. So Alleyn, in charge of the investigation, is put on board the ship from Southampton, to travel incognito in an attempt to discover the killer.

Marsh uses some psychology to explain the trip, to try to make it more than a plot device to get a small number of people isolated together, the pre-requisite of the classic crime novel. Her idea is that the killer is a schizophrenic who has some dim recollection of his crimes in his normal moments, going on board ship to escape from the temptation posed by the anonymity of London. This does not solve his problem, for among the passengers are two eminently possible victims. I don't know how likely a piece of psychology this is, being in no way an expert in criminal psychiatry, but the case I do know a bit about, the "Yorkshire Ripper", was rather different: Peter Sutcliffe apparently had no knowledge in his normal life of the crimes he had committed; it was only when presented with incontrovertible evidence that the walls separating parts of his personality began to crumble; it wasn't even as though his most shameful nightmares turned out to be true.

What in fact rings most falsely in this book is the awful slang employed by the characters; did anyone ever refer to a man they fancied as a 'G.B.' (short for gorgeous brute)? After the war, Marsh seemed to be writing books more and more set in the past (though providing indicators, such as the awful TV show hosted by the character Aubrey Dale, that they were still intended to be contemporary), in the twenties and thirties. The backgrounds are no longer up to date - the villages of Off With His Head and Scales of Justice were surely rare even in the fifties; cruise ships (even ships intended to mainly carry cargo, as Cape Farewell is intended to be) must have already been losing out to commercial aviation. This old-fashioned atmosphere is compounded by the slang; if you want your dialogue not to seem hopelessly out of date in ten years' time, you should ignore the more outrageous slang around you.

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