Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Colour Scheme” by Ngaio Marsh

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Colour SchemeIt is 1943, deep in the midst of World War II, and Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn has been sent to New Zealand to look for spies when he gets a letter from Dr. James Ackrington that he is certain that a spy is inhabiting Wai-ata-Tapu Hot Springs, which are thermal springs with mud baths and mineral waters full of “alkalize, free sulfuric acid, and free carbolic acid gas” in Colour Scheme. Then the book shifts to the Hot Springs with the Claire family and Dr. Ackrington, along with their guests and local native friends. Dr Ackrington receives a letter from a doctor friend asking if the famous Shakespearean actor, Geoffery Gaunt, might be allowed to spend some time at the Hot Springs doing hydrotherapy. Gaunt got stuck in New Zealand when the war started, so he has spent his time raising money for the war effort. But now he needs medical treatment and has been recommended to visit Wai-ata-Tapu. Most of the Claire family are inclined to reject the visit of Gaunt, along with his secretary and manservant, but Colonel Claire reveals that he is in serious debt to Maurice Questing, the odious man who has been occupying a room at Wai-ata-Tapu, so they need the funds from Gaunt, though that will almost certainly be insufficient to save the springs for themselves. Thus they invite Gaunt to join them.

It doesn’t take long before Gaunt takes up residence, leading to a visit by the Maori top royalty, Rua, a 100- year sort of uber- chief who began life as a warrior, then became a newspaper editor and then a member of Parliament before returning to the traditional Maori lifestyle in his old age. He wants to invite Gaunt and the other residents at Wai-ata-Tapu to join a special gathering among the Maori people. But then he brings up a further subject, that he has had reports that Questing has been searching for Maori artifacts on the mountain, something highly “tapu” to the Maori people. Questing has been boasting among certain groups that when he takes over Wai-ata-Tapu, he will set up a fancy resort with a curio shop. What’s worse is that Questing has been seeking out the sacred axe of Rui, the oldest known chief, who is buried with this sacred axe. Dr. Ackrington announces that all of this secret night work on the mountain just gives him an excuse for sending signals to the Japanese in the nearby sea, since Dr. Ackrington believes strongly that the other man is a fifth columnist, an “enemy within.”

The night of the concert, all the residents of Wai-ata-Tapu go, either by foot over the mountain filled with hot mud geysers or by car, to the Maori village. Everyone has a great time, especially when Gaunt brings the building to its feet with his recitation of the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. But Questing still manages to make everyone around him angry, and they all go off in different directions, most to walk home. Then, as Dikon Bell, Gaunt’s secretary, gets ready to drive the women home, they hear a piercing scream that takes Dikon up the mountain, where he runs into Septimus Falls, a new visitor to Wai-ata-Tapu, who thinks that Questing may have fallen into the geyser of boiling mud. The rest of the book tries to solve the mystery of what truly did happen to Questing. Did he fall in the geyser? Was he pushed in? Or was this all an elaborate scheme to make his getaway?
Could he have been a spy?

Colour Scheme begins a pattern in which Marsh experiments with different styles of narration. The book begins with a third person omniscient point of view but shifts about a quarter of the way to a mostly limited point of view from the perspective of Dikon, but it doesn’t limit itself even to the limited viewpoint, shifting in and out of it to an omniscient angle.

It is also interesting how the war affects the content of the book. First, Alleyn is in New Zealand in the first place because of his war duties to look for spies, whether from the outside or from within. This served as a reminder that everyone must be wary even in locations seemingly afar from the action of the war. Second, the conclusion of the personal action ends with less certainty than most books, which usually end with an impending wedding or similar. Without creating a spoiler, though, I can’t go into further details on this. But throughout the course of the book, we are constantly reminded that war is present amid everything.

The people at Wai-ata-Tapu live very comfortably next to the Maori people, the native people of New Zealand. This book spends a lot of time portraying the Maori from the region of this book. As it says, “White men move across the surface of
New Zealand, but the Maori people are of its essence.” They have had to adapt to the modernization of a millennium in just a century. It is worth noting that the name Ngaio is actually our author’s middle name and is of Maori origin. Though I believe Marsh was not of the Maori people, she clearly had strong sympathies for the group. It is important for readers to separate racist comments made by individual characters from the actual opinion of the author. In this case, some characters do say things disrespectful to the Maori culture, but they do not represent the attitude of the author, as her complaint against the ways the colonizers have harmed Maori culture shows.

As I look through reviews, I see many people who do not like the performance of Nadia May in the audio versions. I, however, really like Nadia May, the nom de vox of Wanda MacCaddon, another name she records under. In fact, my mother and I will always choose Nadia May over any other narrator if a book has multiple offerings. To illustrate my pretence of this narrator, I own 30 titles performed by her, even of books with other narrators as selections. I like hearing May’s pleasant voice as she reads a book to me. Further, she uses effective pacing, neither too fast or too slow. She did a great job voicing the Maori people, especially in their native wails. Does anyone notice a pattern here? I just really like Nadia May!

Colour Scheme is a really creative, fascinating book, but because we don’t actually meet Alleyn until the very end of the book, I do not recommend it for someone new to the works of Marsh. I love the taste I get of northern New Zealand, which is so different from the taste I got of other parts of the island country in Vintage Murder, Died in the Wool, and Photo Finish, each of which highlights a different part of the country. The background of the war just adds further intrigue to an already interesting plot. But because of the absence of Roderick Alleyn for almost the entire book, I lower my five stars to four.

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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