Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Hand in Glove”

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In Hand in Glove by Ngaio Marsh, first published in 1962, Nicola Maitland-Mayne travels by train to the small town of Codling, during which journey she meets Andrew Bantling. Hired by Mr. Percival Pyke Period to serve as his secretary as he writes a book about modern- day rules of etiquette, Nicola finds that Mr. Period selected her out of all possible women to be his secretary because of the snob factor related to Nicola’s upper class heritage. Nicola gets invited to lunch at Mr. Pyke Period’s house, where she meets Mr. Harold Cartell, Andrew’s first step-father and the second husband of Desire, Lady Bantling. Cartell has been renting a room for seven weeks from Mr. Pyke Period, an arrangement not working out very well. The final two guests at the luncheon are Connie’s “adopted niece,” Moppett, and Moppett’s troublesome boyfriend, Leonard Leiss, who just made the police rolls as someone to observe. When they all get up from their meal, Pyke Period’s highly valuable cigarette case has disappeared. Leonard shows his bad character further when he uses the names of Mr. Pyke Period and Mr. Cartell as security, along with a cheap car in poor condition, to drive off with a fancier vehicle owned and being sold by the gas station owner.

That night Andrew invites Nicola to one of his mother’s parties, but fortunately this party is mild and not one of Desiré’s wild, sordid events. However, the two end up skipping the treasure hunt and sitting in the car talking for several hours. It is not until the next morning, however, that construction workers working on a sewage trench discover the body of Mr. Cartell at the bottom of the 14×3 foot ditch. Someone has pushed a giant pipe on top of Mr. Cartell, killing him.

Now enters Chief Detective Superintendent Roderick Alleyn to solve the case. He interviews each individual involved, having to sort out the lies from the truth, especially needing to determine what details people have been holding back from him. Alleyn does not find himself particularly pleased to find his social friend Nicola involved in the case, but he can keep her away from things only so far. It takes the clever genius of Alleyn to find the criminal.

Hand in Glove is an interesting book with creative characters that bring the book to life. The plot itself does not move as strongly as some of Marsh’s other books, but the characters more than make up for the plot’s weaker points. The murder is unique, with the victim’s being killed in a creative method I’ve not seen before. But the plot does lose some of its strength as it goes forward.

It is truly the characters that make this book delightful. I enjoyed the snobbery of Mr. Pyke Period and the way he selected Nicola to be his secretary based upon her heritage. I enjoyed seeing the romance develop between Nicola and Andrew. We also see a budding romance between Alfred, the butler, and the housekeeper, which I also enjoyed seeing. Further, the characters of Moppett and her boyfriend, Leonard, show their bad natures and sneaky sides. The various characters in this book really add to the fun details of Hand in Glove.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh will notice that this denizen of the theater, which is how she received her “damery” and not for her books, incorporates material from the key scenes from Shakespeare. Marsh’s favorite play to quote was very obviously Macbeth, but the most obvious scene in this book is a reversal of the famous balcony scene from Act II of Romeo and Juliet. But this time, instead of Romeo’s calling up to Juliet, who looks down from the balcony to him, Desiré calls up to Mr. Cartell, and instead of words of love, the mother shows her protective instincts toward her son by threatening Mr. Cartell.

Jeremy Sinden performs the audio edition of this book. The most noticeable thing that struck me about the narration, which was fully competent otherwise, is that he mispronounces the name of Alleyn as Al-AIN instead of AL-len. Marsh’s own writings in Death in the Air specify how the name should be pronounced, naming the detective after an actor Marsh admired. Otherwise, the narration comes across as believable, with good accents that demonstrate the class of the speaker. The exception is the voice of Inspector Fox, who seems more staid and solid than as Sinden portrays him. But I will confess my own personal prejudices towards the performances of James Saxon and Nadia May, both of whom are such excellent narrators that they easily eclipse other people.

Hand in Glove is a fun book with creative details to it. I had fun getting to know the characters personally and see them develop, though the plot did get a little tiresome at times. I give the book four stars.

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

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