Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Singing in the Shrouds”

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A serial killer is at work in what becomes one of Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn’s most urgent and dramatic cases in Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh. The S.S. Cape Farewell sets sail from London to South Africa just as the beat policeman discovers the third such body, with the signature flowers spread over the body and the sound of singing showing off the trademarks of the “Flower Murderer.” The strangled woman clasps an embarkation ticket to the ship, causing Alleyn to be sent to the ship from Portsmouth in order to look for the murderer. He does this despite all the objections of Captain Bannerman, who stubbornly refuses to accept that one of his passengers could be a murderer no matter what kind of evidence builds up.

The Cape Farewell has 9 other passengers, plus a steward. With the murders happening 10 days apart, Alleyn races to identify both the assailant and the potential victim, and two women seem most likely: The portly but glamorous Mrs. Dillington-Blick (a.k.a. Mrs. D-B) and the young and beautiful but sad Jemima Carmichael. So to try to draw out information on people’s alibis and other personal information, Alleyn holds a dinner party on the ship. But the next night, someone mangles a doll to look just like a victim of the flower murderer. Clearly, despite all the objections of the captain, the flower murderer is on the Cape Farewell.

Singing in the Shrouds has an exciting plot and creative characters that keep us attached to the book. The growing suspense of knowing that the murderer must be on the ship adds to the excitement of reading this book. We also find ourselves intrigued by the many discussions of Shakespeare’s tragedies, in particular Othello, in which the murder is committed in a similar vein as those performed by the flower murderer. The schoolmaster Mr. Merryman lectures everyone on the cases in the most obnoxious way.

The characters in this book provide plenty of entertainment to those of us reading the book. They either endear themselves to us or make us love to hate them. In particular, we appreciate Mrs. Dillington-Blick, who, despite her heavy-set figure, draws all the people, but in particular the men, to her. As a heavy-set person myself, I appreciate seeing a large person have this measure of popularity, even when she shows off her swimsuit. On the other hand, the captain comes across as pompous and makes you want to shake him to wake him up. In addition, we find ourselves cheering on the love affair of Dr. Tim Makepeace and Jemima Carmichael.

Interestingly for a book published in 1958, the book has two gay characters, the steward who is openly recognized as gay and the woman passenger who does not come out openly as lesbian but who fits the role of one. Dennis, the steward, is a delightful young man who seems confident in his own identity, though Miss Abbott does not seem comfortable in her own skin. Looking through reviews of the book, I notice that many reviewers seem to judge the gay characters and their treatment by others through a modern lens, but one should not do such a thing with a historical piece. We shouldn’t ignore sins of the past, but we should read texts with a recognition of the context. And frankly, while certain passengers make disparaging comments, not everyone treats the two characters badly. For a book published in 1958, it was brave to include positive images of gay characters.

James Saxon performs the audio edition of this book, and as always, he does an excellent job. He really embodies the book and the characters as he gives life to the book, helping to build up the suspense as the situation gets more and more dire.

I really enjoyed Singing in the Shrouds, with its creative details. I did miss getting to see both Inspector Fox and Agatha Troy, but the creative other characters help to make up for this. I give this book five stars.

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

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