Golden Age Detective Novels are among my favorite mysteries, and Ngaio Marsh, one of the original Four Queens of Crime, created the Roderick Alleyn series in the ‘30s when Christie, Allingham, and Sayers likewise were beginning to write. Of course Black As He’s Painted is a later novel, published in 1973, so it isn’t exactly a Golden Age mystery. But Superintendent Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, her detective hero, has grown little older, he is just as smart, debonair, and witty as he always was, and he still shows a touch of mordant humor as he solves crimes. The one big personal change: he is married to Troy, the artist he courted in the early novels. This convoluted, political near-thriller is one of Marsh’s most exciting.
Convoluted is the word, but it’s not the only word. Black cannot be said to have the same tight, cohesive structure as, say, the novels of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. Marsh and Allingham were wild cards, some of their novels good, some bad, all interesting. Marsh begins this intriguing novel by introducing the lovable Mr. Whipplestone, a sweet, smart, somehow almost spinsterish retired Foreign Service official, who simultaneously finds a black cat and a sweet little house in Capricorn Mews while he is out for a walk. He buys the house, and the Chubbs, the live-in caretakers, work for Mr. Whipplestone as well as for Mr. Sheridan, the mysterious previous owner who resides in the downstairs flat, and for some of the neighbors. It soon becomes clear that there are strange goings-on in Capricorn Mews. What is the connection between Sheridan, the Chubbs, and his visitors? Oddly enough, it is the black cat who finds the connection.
Meanwhile, Alleyn is negotiating security arrangements with Boomer, a president of an unstable African country who likes to walk freely among crowds and trust in his luck, though there have been assassination attempts. Although he is an old school friend, Alleyn has little influence, and he dislikes the assignment, for the Special Branch works differently and must protect Boomer at a huge, spectacular party attended by many who pose a threat. When Alleyn contacts Mr. Whipplestone before the party, we know the group in Capricorn Mews must be connected.
Marsh always manages to keep the tone light. Take this paragraph about Mr. Whipplestone.
“Mr. Whipplestone had been in residence for over a month. He was thoroughly settled, comfortable and contented and yet by no means lethargically so. On the contrary, he had been stimulated by his change of scene and felt lively….he wrote in his diary, ‘it’s like a little village set down in the middle of London. One runs repeatedly into the same people in the shops.’”
I suppose that’s the kind of thing that makes this a “cozy.” Though it’s not all cozy. The characters are so life-like.
An excellent read! I can’t recommend Marsh too highly. I love the other queens as well, but Marsh is neglected in this country, and most of her books are currently out-of-print here..