Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh was a re-read as I was looking for classic crime to read for a young person's bookclub*. I bought this for myself with a gift voucher from W.H. Smiths in Burnley when I was 15. One of January's great pleasures as a teenager was spending my gift vouchers, preferably on books. I loved Colour Scheme then, as I do now, and it started a long love affair with the crime fiction of New Zealander Ngaio Marsh.
Many of her novels are set in England but this one, written and set during WWII, is set in New Zealand. The Claires are an ineffectual colonial family retired from Indian service to run a health spa amongst the hot springs of New Zealand. The parents are useless with money and very conscious of their class. The grown-up children Barbara and Simon are, in their different ways, very gauche, and lack either the sophistication or the leadership that the usual upper middle class boarding school educated young people might have which leads them both into difficult situations repeatedly. Though perfectly pleasant and hard working, they word hard in the wrong way, worry about the wrong things, and are generally unfit to run their retreat.
Offsetting the pleasant uselessness of the Claires is Mrs Claire's brother Dr Accrington, an eminent doctor in the mould of Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess of Grantham from Downton Abbey. He is one of my favourite characters in detective fiction and has a range of put downs I should learn by heart for future use, though of course I won't.
As well as their usual residents a famous Shakespearean actor and his entourage appear. The arrival of this group and the impending financial collapse of the Claires upset the uneasy stability of the retreat causing tensions to run very high.
The crime strand is two-fold: a resident of the retreat is a suspected spy and shipping is being sunk by enemy craft; and, as a consequence of this, someone is murdered. This is a neat transposition of the country house murder to the primordial landscape of the hot springs, as we have a fairly tight and stable group of suspects in a confined area. Added to this are the local Maoris, some of whom we meet, and one last newcomer to the scene, Septimus Falls.
One of Marsh's strengths is her handling of different of levels of society. Whilst there are inevitably some of the assumptions of the era, on the whole maoris, upper classes, middle classes are treated more as individuals than as types. The New Zealand setting is not given the middle class veneer of the time. It would have been alien to many of the intended readership but Marsh doesn't shy away from this, glorying in the landscape's difference:
Barbara stood for a moment at one of the open windows and stared absently at the freakish landscape. Hills smudged with scrub were ranked against a heavy sky. Beyond them across the hidden inlet, but tall enough to dominate the scene, rose the truncated cone of Rangi's Peak, an extinct volcano so characteristically shaped that it might have been placed in the landscape by a modern artist with a passion for simplified form. Though some eight miles away, it was actually clearer than the nearby hills, for their margins, dark and firm, were broken at intervals by plumes of steam that rose perpendicularly from the eight thermal pools.
The pools become a perverse theatrical set. The veranda of the house overlooks them. It's platform nature might make it look like the stage, but often the inhabitants find themselves the audience, looking instead to the auditorium of the pools as they realise, in a baffled way, that the real action is happening down there. The colonials thought they were observing the landscape but we're left with the sense that the landscape is observing them.
Marsh's background, like that of fellow crime novelist Josephine Tey, was theatrical and this comes over strongly in many of her books. If you like theatre and theatrically themed mysteries like Nicola Upton's Tey mysteries then I am sure you'll enjoy this. Operating on many levels, and with the marvellous Dr Accrington to amuse, it is a great winter evening read.
Colour Scheme appears to be out of print as a single volume but it is available with a number of other Marsh titles thus A Surfeit of Lampreys / Death and the Dancing Footman / Colour Scheme (The Ngaio Marsh Collection, Book 4) and as a kindle download here .
*Any suggestions for books for very bright pre-teens gratefully received.