Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Black as He’s Painted” by Ngaio Marsh


Ngaio Marsh came back strong with her 28th book, 1974’s Black as He’s Painted. The president of Ng’ombwana, a newly emerging African nation (in other words, a former colony of England, finally allowed to have its own government), is scheduled to make a state visit to England, and Special Branch is highly concerned. In a recent visit to Mozambique, the president barely escaped a shot at him, and they are afraid someone will try to kill him in England, breaking its record as an assassination- free zone. So Special Branch sends Detective Superintendent Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard to Ng’ombwana to meet with his old school friend, known to his friends as “The Boomer.”

The president greets Alleyn with joy, constantly referencing Davidson’s, the house where the pair lived in college and were best friends. Alleyn tries to reason with the Boomer to avoid pulling any tricks like he has pulled elsewhere in sneaking off away from his security. But the Boomer has a strong belief in his own invincibility. However, he tacitly agrees not to go off on his own without protection while in London.

The evening of the president’s reception for all people with any connection to Ng’ombwana arrives, and Agatha Troy Alleyn, the greatest painter known to England and the wife of Det. Superintendent Alleyn, gets excited upon meeting the president’s great presence and begs Rory to arrange for her to paint him. Other guests at the reception involve Mr. Whipplestone, a recent retiree from the diplomatic office who spent his early years in Ng’ombwana; Colonel Cockburn-Montfort, the man who started up the Ng’ombwanan military and is unhappy that he was not kept to run the military despite his being a drunk; the Sanskit brother and sister, the ugly, fat, and noxious pair who make pottery pigs; and Chubb, the man who “does for” Mr. Whipplestone and who is filling in as ab extra server at the function. All live within a couple blocks of each other in the Capricorn neighborhood, where Mr. Whipplestone has recently lived and is horrified to see the odious people related to Ng’ombwana meeting with his basement neighbor. But what does Chubb have to do with the other members?

The main activities take place, and the president has attended arranged for himself and 10 of his most important guests, including the Alleyns and Rory’s older brother, who has worked as an ambassador in several countries, to be seated with him in a fancy well-lit gazebo while everyone else sits in the dark. Then Ng’ombwana’s great opera singer, Carbo, lets out an amazing long note when they all hear a gunshot and the lights go off everywhere. Alleyn grabs the president abd keeps him down to safety. By the time the lights go on, the Boomer sits straight up in his chair, but the ambassador has been run through with the spear of the Boomer’s Mlingi, his native bodyguard, who lies in the corner clutching his arm as if attacked himself.

The rest of Black as He’s Painted continues with the investigation, which poses challenges because anything that happens in the Ng’ombwanan embassy takes place on Ng’ombwanan soil, and thus is out of the jurisdiction of Scotland Yard and Special Branch, led by the poor, exhausted Fred Gibson. And the president insists that his Mlinsi is without reproach so couldn’t have committed the crime. But Alleyn doesn’t expect to get his greatest help from a special little cat with a white tail rescued by Mr. Whipplestone and which he named Lucy Locket.

Black as He’s Painted has a strong, unique plot and creative characters, especially the Boomer and Lucy Locket. The action of the murder is performed with creativity, and the solution came as a surprise to me. I enjoyed seeing the process by which Alleyn solved the case and especially the way Lucy Locket Audrey’s assists him.

The characters in this book come across very uniquely. It is great fun to see Troy appear throughout, as the president commissioned her to paint his official portrait, which his country was sponsoring. Alleyn doesn’t prevent her from doing so even when he thinks there is a safety risk to both of them because of continuing death threats against the Boomer. But Alleyn realizes that it would be a crime against art for him to put a stop to the greatest painting she has ever made. The other characters in the book add a lot to the fun flavor of the book.

The book is sometimes criticized for its depiction of the Africans as primitive. It is true that the language to describe the Africans is sometimes very negative, but most of those slurs are performed by white supremacists, in particular ones who hate people from Ng’ombwana. Marsh shows that such attitudes are inappropriate and ridiculous in showing such language.

Nadia May performs the audio edition of Black as He’s Painted in her usually effective manner. I love her clever portrayal of the book, with tremendous expression that makes the book all the more fun and enjoyable. Her voices for all the characters, especially the Boomer, adds to the joy of listening to this great book.

Black as He’s Painted is one of my very favorite Ngaio Marsh books, being a fun, clever book with a unique ending and fun characters, both good and bad. I highly recommend this book to anyone and give it five stars.

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

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