Home > 1930, 20th Century, Crime Fiction, Marsh Ngaio, New Zealand Literature, Whodunnit > Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh – #SouthernCrossCrime2021

Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh – #SouthernCrossCrime2021

Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh (1936) French title: Initiation à la mort (First translation) and Mort en extase (second translation)

I picked Death in Ecstasy by Ngaio Marsh for Kim’s Southern Cross Crime Month. I wanted to read a book by Marsh something I hadn’t done since my years of crime binge-reading in my teens. To be honest, I didn’t know that Marsh was from New Zealand.

Death in Ecstasy is a whodunnit but the setting is not a classic one. No country manor or seaside resort here, but the House of the Sacred Flame, a sect located in Knocklatchers Row, London. The priest of the cult is Mr Garnett, self-proclaimed Father. The church has Initiates and two acolytes, like adult altar boys. The ceremony is in full swing…

‘Now the door is open, now burns the flame of ecstasy. Come with me into the Oneness of the Spirit. You are floating away from your bodies. You are entering into a new life. There is no evil. Let go your hold on the earth. Ecstasy – it is yours. Come, drink of the flaming cup!

… when poor Cara Quayne, who was in religious extasy and about to become the Chosen Vessel, drinks from the cup and drops dead. The wine was spiced up with cyanide.

Nigel Bathgate, who lives nearby, was in the church when it happened. Out of curiosity. After a doctor from the attendance confirms Cara’s death, Nigel rings Roderick Alleyn, Chief Detective-Inspector at Scotland Yard.

The investigation starts right away, Alleyn accompanied by Detective-Inspector Fox, Bailey, in charge of forensic and the Yard’s surgeon. We have a classic investigation of a murder that can only have been committed by a limited number of people, the Initiates.

Marsh draws up a curious group of people. Mr Ogden, an American business man who is in London on business, M. de Ravigne, a Frenchman who is in love with Cara, Miss Wade, an observant spinster, Mrs Candour, an old gossipy bat, jealous of Cara, Mr Pringle and his fiancée Jeney Jenkins and the two gay acolytes, Mr Wheatley and Mr Smith.

No need to go further into the plot, it’s classic crime. The fun of the book is between the lines and beyond the plot.

I thought that Ngaio Marsh was a lot more playful than Agatha Christie. I enjoyed the relationship between Alleyn and Nigel, who bows to Alleyn’s superiority. It’s clear in their names: in the book, Nigel Bathgate is Nigel and Roderick Alleyn is Alleyn or Chief. Alleyn teases Nigel about his journalistic style…

‘What style are you adopting? You have been reading George Moore again, I notice.’ ‘What makes you suppose that?’ asked Nigel, turning pink. ‘His style has touched your conversation and left it self-conscious.’ …

but Nigel teases back, like here:

‘Chief Detective-Inspector,’ he said, ‘I am your Watson, and your worm. You may both sit and trample on me. I shall continue to offer you the fruits of my inexperience.’

The relationship between Alleyn and Fox is also quite amusing, Alleyn giving him nicknames, like Foxkin, lightly making fun of his attempts at learning French through a radio program.

As often in books of that time, foreigners have to sound foreign and in line with what their nationality entails. This is why Nigel exclaims that “de Ravigne’s a Frenchman. He is no doubt over-emotionalized” or that Ogden looks like an American commercial: “He was a type that is featured heavily in transatlantic publicity, tall, rather fat and inclined to be flabby, but almost incredibly clean, as though he used all the deodorants, mouth washes, soaps and lotions recommended by his prototype who beams pep from the colour pages of American periodicals.”

In British books, Frenchmen are always emotional and oversexed and Americans always vulgar.

I had fun observing how Marsh tiptoed around homosexuality and what periphrases she used to make the reader understand that Wheatley and Smith are a couple. Mr Garnett reads central-heated books hidden in brown paper covers that make Wheatly blush and Marsh drops hints and roundabout phrases to let us know that Mr Garnett had sex with women among the Initiates. It seems like sex talk is a big no-no in the publishing industry of the time.

I also grinned at Marsh’s ironic mentions of the crime fiction industry, its tropes and star writers and characters. See here, when I was at 53% of the book, according to my kindle:

‘Look here,’ said Nigel suddenly, ‘let’s pretend it’s a detective novel. Where would we be by this time? About half-way through, I should think. Well, who’s your pick.’ ‘I am invariably gulled by detective novels. No herring so red but I raise my voice and give chase.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Nigel. ‘Fact. You see in real detection herrings are so often out of season.’ ‘Well, never mind, who’s your pick?’ ‘It depends on the author. If it’s Agatha Christie, Miss Wade’s occulted guilt drips from every page. Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter would plump for Pringle, I fancy. Inspector French would go for Ogden. Of course Ogden, on the face of it, is the first suspect.’

Now I have to look for a book with Inspector French, preferably published in 1936 for the #1936Club.

Last but not least, I keep learning funny-sounding English words when I read books from the 1920s and 1930s. This time I’ll quote Lumme!, rum, mellifluous, hanky-panky, jakealoo or fossicked. I’m grateful for ebooks, their instant dictionary and the fun I have looking into all these words I don’t know. It’d make me sound like a great-grand-ma if I used them, right?

  1. March 3, 2021 at 12:56 pm

    My mum had a Ngaio Marsh, though I’m blowed if I can remember its name, but I do remember the inspector (it’s more than half a century since I left home). You might remember James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1927 (I think) and the sex in it was a no no all over the English speaking world. My book for SX crime month is another 40 years earlier and yes, the Frenchman is certainly oversexed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 3, 2021 at 10:21 pm

      I haven’t read Ulysses. Yet. It sits on the TBR.

      Looking forward to discovering which crime fiction book you picked for this event.


  2. March 3, 2021 at 4:20 pm

    Thanks so much for your review, Emma! Please do add it to Mr Linky here when you have time: https://www.blenza.com/linkies/links.php?owner=Kimbofo&postid=07Feb2021c&meme=13293

    I’m hoping to read a Marsh book later in the month ; I have her first one lurking on my Kindle somewhere. I’ve never read her before. I like the sound of the humour in the one you’ve reviewed; it does sound quite playful


    • March 3, 2021 at 10:15 pm

      I added it to Mr Linky.

      I hope you’ll enjoy your Marsh too. She’s more playful than Agatha Christie.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 4, 2021 at 3:34 am

        Thanks so much, Emma. I last read Agatha Christie when I was about 16! Am looking forward to the Marsh.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. March 3, 2021 at 5:07 pm

    Nice review, thanks. She’s on my list for my current Classics Club TBR, with A Man Lay Dead (1934). I’m planning on reading for the #1936Club, with Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain and The Swedish Cavalier, by Leo Perutz. I actually recently read another 1936 classic: A Cat, a Man, and Two Women, by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: https://wordsandpeace.com/2021/02/14/sunday-post-38-2-14-2021/


    • March 3, 2021 at 10:23 pm

      Thanks. I hope you’ll like the one you picked.
      For #1936Club I’ve got Card on the Table by Agatha Christie and Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.
      I’d like to read more, but I don’t think I’ll make it.


  4. March 3, 2021 at 5:39 pm

    Ah wonderful! I haven’t read Marsh for ages, but was very fond of her back in the day! And 1936 – really, I could have just a week of reading classic crime for our club!!!


    • March 3, 2021 at 10:24 pm

      Please, do have a classic crime week for the #1936Club. I have Cards on a Table by Agatha Christie on the shelf. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. March 4, 2021 at 1:25 am

    I’m quite fond of Marsh’s work and Alleyn who a lot of mystery fans seem to find kind of boring. Love the quote you’ve used from Nigel about the various detectives’ pick for the villain.


    • March 5, 2021 at 10:25 pm

      I really liked these light comments and and self-mockery.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. March 4, 2021 at 11:30 am

    It sounds like an intriguing read, I like the new/old/particular vocabulary that crops up when read from another culture. I’m reading a book currently by a Colombian author Patricia Engel and I appreciate that just by holding a finger on the word the device searches first the dictionary then Wikipedia for an explanation, it’s a lazy but informative tool!


    • March 5, 2021 at 10:28 pm

      Now I’m reading another New Zealand crime, rife with Australian slang. I’m picking up new words! 🙂


  1. March 25, 2021 at 10:46 am
  2. March 31, 2021 at 3:02 pm
  3. April 11, 2021 at 9:51 am

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