Colour Scheme (1943) by Ngaio Marsh

I have had a few average/poor outings with Marsh this year so I was slightly buoyed by the fact several other reviewers seemed to have enjoyed this one.

Colour Scheme

Despite the title making it sound like the story will be set in a paint shop, Colour Scheme (1943) is set in Wai-ata-tapu in New Zealand at a thermal spa which has mud pool baths. Doing what she does best, the novel begins with Marsh introducing us to the inhabitants of the spa and in this I think she does really well. There is the retired Dr James Ackrington who is in a foul mood with his relations, Colonel and Mrs Claire who run the spa in a haphazard manner. There is also their grown up offspring Barbara (who you will want to slap at points) and Simon, who is keen to get into air force. The wider setting of this novel is WW2, which impinges on certain parts of the plot. Leading into that is Maurice Questing, a guest at the spa, who no one seems to like, but also seems to have a hold over the Colonel which means he won’t be booted out. Reasons for disliking him range from giving unsolicited attention to female characters up to Questing also possibly being a fifth columnist. Flashing lights on top of a nearby hill, unexplained absences and allied ships getting torpedoed nearby give some weight to this latter suspicion. Thrown into this chaos is another patient, Geoffrey Gaunt, a famous Shakespearean actor who has come to recuperate, accompanied by his secretary Dickon Bell and his dresser Alfred Colly.

There is also a Maori clan which lives nearby, led by Rua and Marsh’s understanding and knowledge of this culture is evident not just incorporating Maori traditions into the story, but also in describing how Western culture has affected individual communities. Through Rua the reader can see how Western culture has had a good and bad effect on his group and how Maori traditions such as the language is being lost, as the younger generation prefers to speak English. Rumours that Questing is planning on digging up sacred artefacts from the Maori reserve adds to Rua’s uneasiness.

A Meeting of Cultures: US Marine learning Maori Dancing
A Meeting of Cultures: US Marine learning Maori Dancing

The Claires’ spa makes Fawlty Towers’ (BBC Comedy) look and run like the Ritz. Although Gaunt initially regrets turning up he soon starts to enjoy the family antics, whose members he sees as part of comedy theatre production. He also likes watching the scenes which take place as Questing makes life more and more intolerable for the others. Tensions reach boiling point on the night of the concert so the reader is not surprised when Questing is the only one not to return home that night… Death by boiling mud pool is certainly a new murder method for me and it worked well within the setting of the novel. Since many of the characters were walking home that night the list of suspects is a long one. There are many factors to consider in solving this case such as the already mentioned spy angle and the exploitation of Maori artefacts, which helped to keep the story interesting and the investigation element of the novel is mostly contained to a family meeting which meant that this section was not as dull as it usually is in some of Marsh’s other novels.

Over half of the novel builds up to Questing’s death which some readers may find slow, but for me I think it worked well as it meant Marsh’s strengths in writing could be employed more and that the characters and their relationships with each other were well developed. Due to the big build up to the murder I think after it some parts of the plot are left a little underdeveloped such as the reaction the family members have to facing near ruin, one might call it rather blasé. This is a minor niggle though. Some of you may be wondering where Inspector Alleyn features in this novel and his disguised entrance into the story occurs only a little while before the murder. I say disguised but to be honest you will be able to spot him a mile away, even if the other characters cannot. There is a romance element to the plot but in contrast to some of Marsh’s other novels, it takes a backseat and unlike in a Georgette Heyer novel there are no wedding bells ringing at the end. I think the WW2 background perhaps inhibits including such festivities, when life is not so certain and the novel does end a slightly darker note.

Overall in comparison to my other Marsh reads this year I did enjoy this book and because Inspector Alleyn is working under cover and the fact that the murder happens very late in the book, meant that Marsh’s inability to make a police investigation interesting is minimised. The character development was strong and the utilisation of Maori culture and New Zealand as a setting made the book a good read. I wouldn’t call this a 100% fair play mystery, not because evidence is hidden but because there is a key element which I don’t think many readers could guess independently (or maybe it’s just me). However, by and large Marsh does play fair and does a Christie like move where events can be interpreted more than one way, but the narrative pushes you into only seeing it one way.

Funniest Line in the Book: ‘I love you. Put that on your needles and knit it’

(Life would be much more fun if people actually talked like this)

Rating: 3.75

See also:


  1. Okay, so we know that I’m not a fan of Marsh, but I’d be tempted to try this purely on account of the incorporation of Maori culture into the plot…there’s something about cross-cultural crime settings that appeal to me hugely, especially when done well. Tony Hillerman did a fantastic job of this in books like Dance Hall of the Dead and The Thief of Time, and it’s been rather less of a thing in the genre as far as I’m aware in recent years (though it must be said that I also have an astonishing – no, really, a quite staggeringly astonishing- ignorance of modern crime fiction).

    This doesn’t necessarily mean that I will read this, of course, just that it’s a tempter should I ever get an itch to investigate whether I’ve been too harsh on Marsh. Oh, hey, I’m a poet…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the Maori element of the plot did help make it a more interesting read, but I wouldn’t say it is the best Marsh novel I have read. She is not one of my favourite writers and I have even on occasion been ‘harsh on Marsh,’ though quite frankly Spinsters in Jeopardy deserved it! No idea how I got through that novel. I don’t tend to read a lot of modern crime fiction either and if I do it’s usually translated stuff. What with doing my posts for the Tuesday Night Bloggers (which are on Marsh) and doing this review, I feel like I am all Marshed out.


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