Colour Scheme, Ngaio Marsh
As I've mentioned before, I discovered Ngaio Marsh a few years ago through the television series. I was interested enough to look for the books, and I enjoyed the ones I read, primarily the early ones set before World War II. But I moved on to other books before I read all that I had collected, leaving several on the TBR pile. Last year I read Scales of Justice, which I thought pretty dull. I can't say that Colour Scheme is dull, but I'm starting to wonder if I've just lost my taste for Marsh's books.
I had high hopes for this one, just from the setting: New Zealand during the second world war. I don't think I have ever read a book set in New Zealand, and I know nothing about the home front there (or in Australia) during the war. The story is set in a shabby little resort built on the thermal baths at Wai-ata-tapu Springs, on the northwest coast. Colonel and Mrs. Claire run the place with their two grown children, Barbara and Simon, and Mrs. Claire's brother Dr. James Ackrington, retired from his London practice. Dr. Ackrington believes that a paying guest, Maurice Questing, is a fifth-columnist providing information on Allied shipping. He writes a letter setting out his suspicions to Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, who has come to New Zealand to investigate such activities. Soon after, other guests arrive at the hotel: the famous stage actor Geoffrey Gaunt, with his secretary Dikon Bell, and Septimus Falls, a gentleman suffering from lumbago. (It doesn't take much detective skill to figure out who is there under an alias.)
Maurice Questing has been making enemies. He has a financial hold over Colonel Claire and drops broad hints about taking over the resort. He has been making advances to Barbara. He has upset the Maori living in a nearby village (pa) by trespassing on sacred territory in their reserve and by showing too much interest in Huia, a maid at the resort and the great-granddaughter of the local clan's chief Rua. He toad-eats Gaunt and tries to use his celebrity to draw attention to the resort. The resort handyman Bert Smith thinks Questing tried to kill him, and Simon also thinks he is an enemy agent. So there is no shortage of suspects when Questing goes missing, presumed to have fallen (or been pushed) to a horrible death in one of the boiling mud pools that dot the area.
Marsh takes almost half the book to set the stage, introduce the characters, and draw the lines of conflict, which involve a lot of rather tiresome arguments. Dr. Ackrington is a bully, Gaunt is theatrical, the Colonel and his wife are woolly-minded, Simon is abrasive, Bert is surly and drunk, and Questing is vulgar. The investigation of Questing's disappearance sends them all into over-drive, and it came as a relief to have the case solved and the book finished.
I did find the treatment of the Maori characters interesting. I know very little about their history and culture, which the New Zealand-born Marsh would have been familiar with. I was reminded of how Native Americans are portrayed in I Heard the Owl Call My Name: close to nature, wise, wary of outsiders, struggling to maintain their traditions against the encroachments of Anglo culture and especially concerned about the young people of the tribe, who are losing the old ways.
I will probably try the other Marsh books in the TBR stacks at some point, though I'm wondering if I'd just be better off sticking to the older books that I've read and liked.