Thursday, 12 August 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Black As He's Painted (1974)

Edition: Fontana, 1981
Review number: 210

'The best Ngaio Marsh for a long time' is how the Daily Telegraph greeted the appearance of Black As He's Painted (according to the front cover). By 1975, she have produced quite a long string of disappointing novels, and it wouldn't have taken a great deal to deserve this tag; but in fact Black As He's Painted is one of the best of all Marsh's novels.

The story concerns a visit made by the President of the Commonwealth nation of Ng'omwana, known as "Boomer" to his friends, to London. He insists on dealing with the London police through Alleyn, an old public school friend of his, rather than allowing Special Branch to work directly with him on his security. Special Branch is not happy at his unwillingness to co-operate with their wishes, particularly as the Boomer had survived an assassination attempt only a few months previously. And then the Ng'omwanan ambassador in London is killed at a reception early in the visit, apparently in mistake for the president.

Black as He's Painted is not only a slightly unusual mystery - assassination is usually the province of the thriller, with little difficulty pinning down the identity of the killer. It contains two of Marsh's most appealing characters. The Boomer is a rather larger than life caricature of the post-colonial African politician, but he is great fun. A tendency to patronise the Africans is a flaw in the book, but its attitude towards them is at least of the seventies rather than the thirties.

The second character is the cat Lucy Lockett, whose portrayal will certainly make this book the favourite among those of Marsh's readers who love cats. Rescued from neglect and maltreatment, she not only takes over the life of her new owner but also discovers important clues in the investigation (as cats need no search warrants).

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