Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh: A Review

Wai-ata-tapu Springs is a thermal spa in New Zealand. There are eight hot springs with varying temperature. Five are exceedingly hot, the others are cooler and are believed to have medicinal properties due to the high concentrations of salts which they contain. This is all presided over by Rangi's Peak, an extinct volcano.

Wai-ata-tapu Hostel is located near these springs and welcomes guests who seek to benefit from the medicinal properties.  The hostel is owned and run by Colonel Claire and his wife. They manage it in a markedly incompetent manner. The Colonel's mind is limited and tends to wander. Mrs. Claire seems rather scatter brained. The furnishings of the hostel are fly blown, aging, and "vaguely uncomfortable" The Claires have a daughter Barbara who is pretty, but unattractively dressed and very naive. They also have son Simon who is studying Morse code while he waits to be called up to the army. The year is 1943, and New Zealand has been already affected by the war. A ship has recently been blown up in the local harbor.

Other residents of the hostel are Dr. Ackrington, Mrs. Claire's brother, who sees the defects and problems of the Hostel, but is ineffective in trying to change them. There is Herbert Smith who is supposed to be working at the Hostel, but who seems to spend a lot of time drinking and doing little.

Maurice Questing, a guest, is a source of great difficulties for everyone. He is brash and loud, and speaks in cliches. He implies over and over that he expects to take over the hostel and when that happens, he will improve it.  He implies that he is going to marry Barbara, and she certainly does not want to marry him. He seems to have tried to murder Smith, but afterwards offers him a contract to work at the hostel when Questing takes over. Questing is also rude to the local Maori.  He has been seen wandering around Rangi's Peak which is a Maori burial ground, and the Claires suspect that he has been trying to find artifacts which can be sold. Simon believes that Questing is a Nazi spy who has been using Rangi's Peak to signal enemy ships about local ship movement.

Then more guests arrive at the hostel. There is Geoffrey Gaunt, a noted Shakespearean actor who is seeking relief from pains in his legs. Gaunt is loved by many and especially by himself. He brings his secretary, Dikon Bell, a young man who soon sees the charms of Barbara Clare who is overwhelmed by a crush on Gaunt. Also on the trip, is Gaunt's dresser, Colly, who acts as valet and chauffeur.  Then later in the week, another guest, Septimus Falls, arrives after having given very little notice of his intention to do so. He is middle-aged, good looking, bookish, and bent over because he is suffering from lumbago.

The local Maori community has decided to have a performance on Friday night in honor of the noted actor, Geoffrey Gaunt.  All of those living at the hostel attend, and watch the Maori perform dances and songs. Geoffey Gaunt is invited to give a recitation of Shakespeare which he does. After the recitation, Questing gives an impromptu speech in which he insults Gaunt, who leaves in a murderous fury.

As the guests from hostel leave to return, either individually or in small groups, they hear a blood curdling scream. After much searching, it is decided that Questing is nowhere around, and they all suspect that Questing has met his death in one of the boiling mud pools either through an accident or by murder. The police are called in. The residents of the hostel meet to discuss possible ideas of what could have happened to Questing, and what their individual alibis are to be. Roderick Alleyn will appear, and solve the crime with his usual skill.

I highly recommend this book.  Ms. Marsh has written wonderful descriptions of her native New Zealand and the Maori natives. The book was originally published in 1943. It has been reissued by Felony and Mayhem Press, and is also available for the Kindle.

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