Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh

Death in a White Tie cover

Death in a White Tie by the New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh was first published in 1938 but my copy is a 1949 reprint. It’s a Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn mystery and the setting is London high society where Lady Alleyn, the detective’s mother is going to be attending debutante balls, chaperoning the daughter of friends who are living abroad. It’s not something she’s looking forward to, the whole process is exhausting and she is a lot older than she was when she did it for her own daughter. It throws her into the society of old friends and it soon becomes apparent that not all is as it should be.

Alleyn is aware that there’s a blackmailer operating in London High Society, he has inside information and ends up attending some of the functions his mother goes to, in an attempt to unmask the blackmailer.

I enjoyed Death in a White Tie which kept me guessing and in some ways Marsh’s writing reminded me of A Game of Thrones as she had no hesitation in introducing the reader to a loveable character – only to dispatch him violently. That’s very different from Christie’s and even Sayers’s writing where you often don’t meet the victim until the body is found, or they are particularly unlikeable people.

I was interested in this passage:

How many of these women were what he still thought of as ‘virtuous’? And the debutantes? They had gone back to chaperones and were guided and guarded by women, many of whose own private lives would look ugly in this flood of hard lights that had been let in on Lord Robert’s world. The girls were sheltered by a convention for three months but at the same time they heard all sorts of things that would have horrified and bewildered his sister Mildred at their age. And he wondered if the Victorian and Edwardian eras had been no more than freakish incidents in the history of society and if their proprieties had been as artificial as the paint on a modern woman’s lips.

I think that’s a fair description of the Victorian and Edwardian era, but those years lasted so long that people forgot how bawdy and raucous society had been in earlier times. Writing like Chaucer’s would probably have shocked the Victorians rigid. Is all that Victorian prurience something we have to blame Prince Albert for? Was it the upsurge of a middle class due to industrialisation in Britain? Just wondering.

I know, I wandered again, but it’s an interesting subject. Getting back to the book, I think this is the best Ngaio Marsh book I’ve read so far.

4 thoughts on “Death in a White Tie by Ngaio Marsh

  1. Interesting quote. And I’m inclined to agree with it. Under the external trappings – the lipstick – society still writhed with all the mire and murk of previous eras. Dickens showed us some examples – just as Austen showed us the veneer of propriety in her time.

  2. I have watched the Inspector Allyn mysteries on video. Is the character on the series based on the books by the same author who wrote this book? Just wondering. I loved the series.

    Paula

    • Paula,
      Yes that TV series was based on the Ngaio Marsh books although I’ve seen some that have a more modern setting than this book has, maybe they just decided to update them.

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