There have been a lot of Ngaio Marsh novels on my desk recently, and a couple of them give me an excuse for another post about detective fiction covers. Both attempt to set up expectations for the reader, in more or less successful (or hilarious) ways. And both covers focus on the idea that Marsh is an old-fashioned writer, or at least one working in an old-fashioned genre.
Firstly, an US edition of her 1966 novel Death at the Dolphin. It didn’t come as a surprise that the title changed for the US version – a number of detective novels in this period have a slight shift in name as they cross the Atlantic. It’s not usually particularly drastic: I’m happy to quibble that changing the title of Rendell’s Murder Being Once Done to Murder Being Done Once actually changes the meaning of the phrase, but it’s not a major issue.
These title changes do, however, sometimes suggest that the publishers aren’t entirely sure what the book contains. Either that, or they’re eager to pass the goods off on an unsuspecting public. For example, Death at the Dolphin, a middlebrow mystery novel which centres on the Dolphin Theatre in London, and the possession of a glove believed to have been made for Shakespeare’s short-lived son Hamnet. It appeared in New York thus:
I hope I’m not giving away any spoilers if I delicately hint that this cover is somewhat misleading. There is, in fact, no killer dolphin to be found in Marsh’s whodunit. (For those of you who’ve read the novel, yes, at a huge stretch it might be said that the “dolphin” was involved in the commission of the crime. But then you’ll know how far this image is from the novel’s tone or theme.)
I think this is probably an example of something I’ve mentioned before in these posts: the struggle to frame detective fiction as exciting and compelling in the post-war period. When competing with political thrillers, horror novels, and Chandleresque noir, one route is to simply make whodunit covers as splashy and tough as possible. I’m not sure it quite came off successfully here, mind you.
I do like this cover, though, for its sheer wrong-headedness. I’m particularly touched by the detail that not only is the Grim Reaper riding the killer dolphin, he appears to be patting it encouragingly. Perhaps he is congratulating it on its most recent slaying, or exhorting it to even greater acts of butchery. And let’s not shirk the fact that the dolphin is red. Has the dolphin bathed in the blood of its victims? We are only left to conjecture.
The second cover is for a Book Club edition of Scales of Justice, which was first published in 1955. This version, published a year later, has this rather striking cover:
I thought this was an oddly soft style for a crime novel in the 1950s. The pastel shade of the young woman’s dress, picked up in the light blue of the trees on the other side of the river. The balance of the gleam of white from her pearl earring, and the white on the face of the spaniel. The diagonal lines of brown juxtaposing the tweed suit and the river water. The palette seems very subdued – certainly when compared with our finny red friend above – and rather nostalgic. I was interested when the inside flap of the jacket made this idea explicit:
Calling something “the classical detective novel”, and suggesting that it is only available “rarely nowadays”, is a particular kind of praise. It fits rather well with the soft colours and soft outlines of the cover, as does the reference later to “time-honoured convention” and “tradition of…great detective stories”. It suggests that this genre has already had its heroic period, defined its conventions and established its canon. Writers and readers can now spend time in this genre without expecting to break any particularly new ground.
Indeed, the novel opens with a nurse pushing her bicycle to the top of a hill and looking down into a valley where all the events of the novel will take place. She imagines it as a slightly twee illustrated map, with people and houses dotted across it, and – again, I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler – at the end of the novel she is given the map she has imagined. It’s a clever way of introducing the places and characters, but it also contributes to the sense that this novel is enclosed, bounded by familiar convention.
Despite the flap blurb, however, this is not a function of Marsh’s writing in the 1950s and 60s. If the setting feels a trifle out of date, this has been the case all the way through her career as a detective novelist. One of the most striking features of Marsh’s novels is their self-consciousness about the conventions and formulae of the whodunit. The critic Susan Rowland has called this her “country house camp”, a means by which she can simultaneously participate in and parody the conventions of English social life (and the English class system).
In biographical terms this is probably rooted in her consciousness of herself as an outside to British life. Born and brought up in New Zealand, and used to calling Britain “Home” before she had ever visited it, Marsh was continually aware of this double vision in her work, of belonging and not belonging.
It’s one of the reasons the theatre is such a potent metaphor and organising plot system in the Inspector Alleyn novels. Marsh was a famous theatrical figure, and gained her Damehood for her services to Shakespeare, but she also used theatrical performance as a metaphor for the way people “perform” themselves and their roles in life.
So I think the Scales of Justice cover picks up deftly on a powerful strain throughout the novel – a sense of artificiality, of living out a familiar story, even acting in a parody of it, whilst also dealing with the fact that these conventions are what make up a great deal of real life. This isn’t a feature of Marsh getting older, or her writing becoming out-dated, since it was there since the 1930s. But perhaps this aspect of her work has only become visible, or marketable, once the detective novel has ceased to be the central crime genre.