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March 2019



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Overture to Death: Ngaio Marsh

Can anyone think of a modern novel in which the chief character is a sexually repressed, malignant, middle aged spinster? Did they become an extinct species in 1963? Such women, often cruelly portrayed, were rife in pre-war novels and Overture to Death boasts two of them.

I wanted to read this again after mentioning it in my Flavia de Luce post. Although she’s not as good as Margery Allingham, I do enjoy Ngaio Marsh’s books, especially the earlier ones. Overture to Death was first published in 1939 and is one of those typically English murder stories people like so much. It’s set in a Dorset village complete with squire, doctor, parson and assorted yokels (the vernacular is pretty accurate). Squire’s son and parson’s daughter are in love but both fathers disapprove. They meet secretly (Your cigarette smells like heaven is a nice period touch). Their chief enemy is the squire’s spinster relative, who is in love with the exceptionally handsome parson, as is the other unmarried grande dame of the village. An amateur production to raise money for a new parish piano involves almost the whole village, feelings run high, death takes place on stage.

It’s one of my favourite Ngaio Marsh stories, partly because of the Dorset connection, and it’s always a pleasure to meet ‘handsome Alleyn’ again, as he solves the mystery.


A modern novel in which the chief character is a sexually repressed, malignant, middle aged spinster

Re: A modern novel in which the chief character is a sexually repressed, malignant, middle aged spin

Yes, good thought, but not really the same. There are plenty of vile women in modern novels but they don't seem to be such recognisable stereotypes as the earlier characters I was thinking of.
Part of that plot sounds rather like an Elizabeth Goudge book - Castle on the Hill, I think.
That has a nice touch of the parson's daughter wondering why she nrver wears lipstick to Early Service - that always irritated me, because the reason was obvious to me - it would come off on the chalice. These days, I suppose, lipstick doesn't come off so easily
An oldie, but a goodie! I like and admire Allingham, but Ngaio Marsh I read as a 10-13 year old, and I love them esp the theatrical ones!
Yes, Vintage Murder is a good one!
Could the spinster thing be a result of various wars (Boer as well as WWI) making more women spinsters whether they wanted to be or not? It must have been terrible ageing in a time when a woman was mainly expected to be a wife and mother and then being unable ever to meet society's expectations.
There's a lot in that. See Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson, about the millions of 'surplus women' between the wars.