Scales of Justice (1955) by Ngaio Marsh

No one would mistake me for a big fan of Marsh’s work, yet I always felt this was one of her better ones. So I thought it might be safe for a re-read. Let’s see if I was right…

Today’s read is set in the village of Swevenings, which has the River Chyne running through it and the plot focuses on 4 separate households and a district nurse whose work weaves its way through the narrative and it is through her that we are introduced to the various characters and soon to be suspects and murder victim. There is the eccentric Octavius Danberry-Phinn, owner of many cats and who is at odds with two of his neighbours. He hates the alcoholic Commander Syce who he is convinced deliberately killed one of his cats during archery practice, and Octavius also sees Colonel Maurice Cartarette as a big angling rival. Both of these characters are determined to be the one who catches the infamous trout, the Old ‘Un. Across the river we have Nunspardon Manor which houses the dying Sir Harold Lacklander and his wife, Hermione. Their son and grandson also live with them, the former of which is spending much time on his golf course with the Colonel’s wife, and the latter is equally an ardent suitor of the Colonel’s daughter, Rose.

Yet the first death in the book is a natural one, that of Sir Harold. But within the last few moments of his life he commissions the Colonel to edit and publish his memoirs. However this is no light undertaking, as the Colonel is stuck between a rock and hard place. If he publishes the memoirs as they are, one part of it will cause a great deal of scandal for the Lacklander family and much social opprobrium. But if the Colonel excises this section of the memoir he is likely to perpetuate an injustice. This understandably causes a great deal of animosity between the two families and the disagreement is still rumbling on in the final events leading up to Colonel’s death. This time the death is not a natural one. It’s murder and a pretty brutal one to boot.

Overall Thoughts

The main question I had during this re-read was this: Why did I rate this one higher than other Marsh novels, when I first read it?

Discounting concussion and other environmental factors, I was a little stumped. The initial setup is effective and I enjoyed the way the nurse is a joining character, who makes her way through the different households. Yet, for me, what kills a Marsh novel, or at the very least maims reader enjoyment, is the introduction of Inspector Alleyn. The introductory chapters give the reader a leg up in regards to one underlying motive/secret. However, this secret is withheld in its entirety from Alleyn for most of the investigation and during this re-read, the high number of moments when a character says ‘I have a secret but I can’t possibly tell you, but don’t worry it couldn’t possibly affect the case,’ did begin to grate. The pacing is detrimentally affected as a consequence and on reflection I wonder whether this story could have functioned better as a novella, as the whole let’s keep the obvious thing a secret from Alleyn does bulk the plot out a lot.

In fact this thought led me to consider other elements of the investigation. When Alleyn is not being fobbed off by suspects, he does have a significant amount of physical clues to grapple with, as well as alibis and timings. So much so that I wondered if this story could have worked better as a novella along the Inspector French line?

At the end of the day Inspector Alleyn is too banal a detective for me to get behind. If I had to assign him a colour it would be beige. My memory seems to have let me down on this occasion, as I originally thought in this one that Marsh had written a more interesting police investigation than usual. But it seems I might be wrong. The ending gave me two contradictory feelings. On the one hand I was disappointed in the choice of culprit. It seemed all too convenient from a certain point of view. Yet on the other hand I enjoyed the artistic skill that went into the structuring of the ending, with its use of two parallel locations. Characters in each location are unravelling under the pressure, but only one location yields a killer. The reader is unsure which one it is.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on this one. I don’t know. Or perhaps, to be more generous to myself, my reading preferences have simply changed. But one thing I do know is that Marsh is a marmite author, so I expect many differing opinions on this one.

Rating: 3.75/5

Calendar of Crime: July (7) Book Title Word Starting with J

10 comments

  1. Unlike yourself, I enjoy Marsh’s work on the whole. Obviously some are weaker than others, and her debut was, I think, a stinker, but the dozen or so other novels of hers I’ve read have generally been, I’d say, very entertaining. As for Scales (the first of her books I ever read, in childhood), on the basis of a recentish reading I love it as a novel but find the explanation of the mechanics of the murder a bit contrived.

    Yet, for me, what kills a Marsh novel, or at the very least maims reader enjoyment, is the introduction of Inspector Alleyn.

    You’ve said this before, as have others. Yet I’ve seen reviews of Marsh where the reviewer clearly regards the arrival on whichever scene it is of their old friend Alleyn as the signal that things are really getting good, but, like, good, wahey. Me, I’m in neither camp; but I do wonder if, should you go into a Marsh novel without the expectation that the arrival of Alleyn is going to be a killer, you might find you reacted differently.

    Of course, such an experiment is almost impossible to conduct — for example, I find both Poirot and Marple pretty ghastly, so, even as others rave, don’t read much Christie because I expect to be turned off by those characters (even though I enjoy Julia McKenzie’s portrayal of the latter). Likewise, although I plowed through I think all of the Sayers mysteries back in the day, my solitary recentish reread merely confirmed to me my recollection of Sir Peter as being an insufferable PITA. Had I come to the novel without that recollection I might have enjoyed it far more.

    Sorta thing.

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    • I get what you mean about pre-conceived notions and how they influence our reading experience, but because I remembered enjoying this one more, I think I had higher expectations than usual. It was only as I was reading it that I started wondering why it wasn’t as good as I remembered. The sentence from my review that you highlight was more of a post-read thought as opposed to one that I was consciously thinking of when reading.
      I know others too who really get on with Alleyn. I just find his character too bland and his combo of policeman and aristocrat doesn’t quite work for me.

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      • Interesting. I’m okay with this combination in Alleyn but can’t stand it in Elizabeth George’s posh cop, Lynley. In the two or three books I read, plus all through the TV series, I kept wanting Havers to sock him one. Hm, Preferably more than one.

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      • Maybe that’s why I’ve tried to read any of the Lynley books, (never got that engaged in the TV adaptation, though I agree Havers is a good character). Probably why I never warmed to P D James’ sleuth either.

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      • I watched the series primarily for Sharon Small as Havers. I hadn’t seen her before, but she’s become one of my favorite actors. She’s wonderfully versatile. As I saw her in other things I realized she’d plained herself down for Havers.

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  2. One of my favourite of hers. I love Nurse Kettle and Commander Syce. Kitty Carteret is an interesting character and I’m rather fond of Phineas. I enjoy the rural setting – set out “like a map”. I wince at the soppy goings on between Rose C and Dr Lacklander – the older couples are far more engaging.

    I flinch even more at the acute snobbery. Kitty’s attempts to be “county” are looked down on. Nurse Kettle has a nauseating speech about social hierarchies (though she gets on very well with old Lady L, and calls her “dear”). Lady L rings Scotland Yard and demands that Alleyn come down and solve their mystery because he is a “gent”. Nobody invites Nurse Kettle into the sitting room.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Maybe it really was one of the better ones. You won’t know unless you reread some others …

    A statistical rule of thumb is that a sample size of 30 is good.

    🤷‍♂️😉

    My reaction to the several Marsh novels I have started and few I have finished is exactly the same as yours: as soon as Alleyn arrives all interest departs. I don’t find Dalgleish as dull, but I do wish there was a whole lot less of him in the books. He’s a prick, and the poet angle just feels a bit Sayers-y.

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    • I’ve read 24 novels by Marsh and one collection of short stories. I’m counting that as close enough for the sample size. Certainly not re-reading all of them! I may give Surfeit of Lampreys another read as that was the other novel by her I remember enjoying.

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