I fell in love with Ngaio Marsh last year when I read Vintage Murder for the Vintage Mystery Challenge. How can you not love a writer who devises a death-by-champagne-bottle plot? So when I put together this year’s list for the Vintage Mystery Challenge 2012, I created a “Vicious Vacations” theme (murders that take place in a location I’d kill to visit!), and knew I had to put another of Marsh’s New Zealand-based books on the list. The only one I was able to find on audible was Colour Scheme, so I downloaded it. And it finally came up on my gym cue last week. The fact that I logged an extra hour and a half on the treadmill indicates that my second Marsh title didn’t disappoint.
Maurice Questing is an insufferable, conniving, lascivious man. A long-term resident of Wai Atta Tapu*, a small thermal spring resort, it’s clear from the beginning that Questing has some kind of hold over Colonel and Mrs. Claire, the stuffy but good hearted expats who own the spa. The book takes place during World War II, and the daily blackouts and shipping reports that were part of the daily life of New Zealanders at the time feature prominently in the book. The setting allows Marsh to put together a fascinating group of characters and possible motives for Questing’s inevitable – and quite gruesome – murder.
In addition to the Claires and Questing, other expats include the Claire’s adult children, ugly duckling Barbara and son Simon, who is working to perfect his Morse code in advance of being called up to the air force. There’s also the famous (and high-maintenance) Shakespearean actor who is taking a cure of lumbago in the mud baths, Geoffrey Gaunt, along with his entourage: personal secretary named Dikon Bell, a New Zealander, and his British dresser and man-Friday, Calley. Another guest at the hot springs, Septimus Falls, is totally agreeable, but evasive about his background. Spa handyman Smith is known to hate Questing openly, even accusing him of attempted homicide.
One of the things that made this book particularly interesting was the inclusion of Maori characters, including a retired Member of Parliament, Rua. Marsh treated the Maori characters and their traditions with dignity, while still illustrating the tensions between the three cultures: Brits, “colonials,” and native New Zealanders. One of the possible premises for Questing’s murder stems directly from the Maori element in the novel, since he is accused of stealing Maori artifacts for illicit sale to collectors. The second premise is indirectly related to the Maori, as there appears to be a fifth column spy signaling from the Maori reserve lands where Questing is known to wander in the evenings.
I never figured out the murderer, in part because I didn’t pay as much attention to the title as I should have. There are a couple of interesting twists toward the end, and more than a few red herrings, but I love it when I think back and the solution to a mystery was difficult but fair, which has been the case in both of the Marsh titles I have read. I’d call it good fun.
I am finally on the board for another challenge, Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2012, hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block! I have some catching up to do, but that’s what summer is for, isn’t it?
*An apology – since I listened to the audiobook, and couldn’t find a complete list of characters online, I have likely spelled some names wrong. I have gone with the most common spellings.