book: Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953) by Ngaio Marsh


For once not a mystery from Marsh but a ripping yarn — a ripping yarn about cults, drug trafficking, muddled identities and general derring-do. There’s a mystery element in the tale, to be sure, but it very much takes the back seat in what’s otherwise a romp.

The Yard’s Roderick Alleyn is being lent to the Sûreté to help nail an international drug-trafficking gang operating out of the Alpes Maritimes. Since he’s going to be based not far from where a cousin of Troy’s lives — a cousin she’s never met but with whom she’s corresponded — it seems like a good idea to take Troy and six-year-old Ricky along so as to mix business with something of a vacation.

The first sign that this plan might not work out too well comes when their train is approaching its destination. Peering out into the early-morning gloom, Alleyn sees, through the lighted window of a chateau next to the tracks, what looks like a murder being committed. Turns out that’s the very chateau his bosses are hoping he’ll be able to infiltrate, because it’s the HQ of a seedy cult linked to the drugs gang.

That’s coincidence number one. Coincidence number two — the sudden taking-ill of a fellow passenger on the train — is enough to gain Alleyn the kind of entree to the chateau, and the cult, that he could have only dreamed of. I’m normally not too much of a fan of coincidence-driven plotting, but the ones here seem just on the right side of the plausible/risible boundary: if these two coincidences happened in real life we’d remark on them with interest, but we wouldn’t be completely flabbergasted.

Another part of the plotting that might trouble some minds arises because, quite clearly, Marsh knew nothing about the effects of marijuana: she seems to have thought they were much the same as those of, say, cocaine and heroin. The glue that keeps the cult together is that its leaders take pains to get the acolytes addicted to reefers, and one of those acolytes talks about how her habit has come completely to control her actions — she’ll do anything for the next fix of marijuana, in other words. To which all one can say is: Yeah, right.

As with the coincidences, this doesn’t really matter. If we assume the cult leader has spiked the reefers with something harder, then the rest fits in well enough. Besides, this is an adventure romp we’re reading, not John le Carré.

There’s a lot of Marsh’s trademark humor here; I laughed aloud several times. Aside from the occasional urge to smack the precocious young Ricky upside the head, I rollicked through Spinsters in Jeopardy with a grin on my face, even during the occasional moments of high tension.

14 thoughts on “book: Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953) by Ngaio Marsh

  1. This is helpful, Thanks. This is the next book in the series for me to read… or re-read, who knows? I was not sure whether to go with it or skip ahead, since there are such divided opinions. But you have convinced me it is worth a try.

    • I’ve been watching other people’s reactions to Marsh, Sergio, and have noticed that while some, including yourself and Puzzle Doc, can’t stand her, at least as many others (me included) generally enjoy her. I guess it’s just a matter of what floats your boat. As you know, I’m one of those few souls who’re not massive Christie fans.

  2. It can be very disconcerting to read a Golden Age author’s take on drugs. I recently read a John Rhode (THE SECRET MEETING) in which he seems to think a couple of puffs of a cigarette that contains some hashish will result in immediate unconsciousness. I have little experience with Marsh, A MAN LAY DEAD having put me off. I keep meaning to give her another chance but I have so much that I want to read it may take awhile. Thanks for the review.

    • Like you, I found A Man Lay Dead pretty poor — there were bits about it that I liked, notably some of the humor, but, even as a first novel, it left a lot to be desired. (Of course, you could say the same about Sayers’s first novel, which was likewise dire and likewise implausibly overcomplicated in terms of the m.o.) Luckily I didn’t start my Marsh voyage with A Man Lay Dead! Most of the ones I’ve read I’ve enjoyed.

  3. I’ve read all of Marsh’s detective fiction and liked almost all of it, but this is not one of my favorites; the “Reefer Madness” silliness pretty much spoils it for me.

    And I just read “Nicholas Blake’s” THE CORPSE IN THE SNOWMAN and had the same problem — everyone twittering in horror at the addictive and min-rotting powers of demon marijuana (while, as usual in books of the period, pretty much all of the characters constantly smoke tobacco — detective Nigel Strangeways even smokes in bed!)

    My favorite Marsh books are NIGHT AT THE VULCAN; DEATH OF A FOOL; and her last one, LIGHT THICKENS, though all of them more for the backstage theatrical atmosphere than the formal mysteries. Probably SINGING IN THE SHROUDS (non-theatrical) should rank up there too.

    • Oddly enough, I’ve just been commenting on Goodreads to someone who said exactly the opposite in response to my remarks about Marsh’s marijuana misapprehensions notes on Spinsters. Here’s what I said:

      Exactly. It seems bizarre to me that some readers can’t look past Marsh’s complete misunderstanding of the effects of marijuana in Spinsters to enjoy the book for what it is. In 1953 the stuff itself was completely unknown to most people and the popular assumption was that, like heroin and cocaine, it was Really Dangerous. Even in the mid-1960s, the first time I saw someone produce a joint at a party I freaked (in polite silence, of course) because I assumed it was as “hard” as LSD.

      Conversely, you have Victorian novelists like Wilkie Collins assuming there was nothing much wrong with a genteel morphine addiction. Ho hum.

      I’m not at all surprised Blake got it wrong in The Corpse in the Snowman, likewise. People were fed all this balls about pot by governments and law-enforcement agencies (and the newspapers), and so of course they believed it. For someone to believe the same thing “now” would be silliness, but now ain’t then.

      Yes, Spinsters isn’t one of Marsh’s greats, but in an odd way it’s because it isn’t even trying to be that I enjoyed it so much. This is the novel of Marsh’s that Hitchcock might have filmed.

      I take on board very much your recommendations of of Night at the Vulcan and Death of a Fool. I seem to remember thinking Light Thickens was a bit turgid, but I may be doing it an injustice. I’m hoping to read a few more Marshes in the new year (I read maybe half, maybe more, a few decades ago). The one I really want to get back to is Artists in Crime, because I can recall enjoying that a LOT.

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