Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018, The Classic Club

Off With His Head – Ngaio Marsh


Well before I picked this book as one of my Classics Club Reads, I noted that I did so because although she’s widely acclaimed, she is not an author I’ve actually read which is shocking considering that I consider myself quite widely read in this genre having been a fan since discovering Maigret and Agatha Christie in my childhood. I have to confess on the whole I found this a difficult read which I will attempt to explain.

The setting of the early scene was really well done when we met Mrs Bunz a German woman with an academic interest in folklore visiting the village of South Mardian in order to witness the “Dance of the Five Sons,” a mixture between a mummers play and a sword dance which has been performed in the village for generations at the time of the winter solstice. Fortunately for the time when we met the performers there were five sons all alive to accompany their father, even older, to give the villagers a show. Sadly the snow has kept the audience to a minimum, but no matter, Mrs Bunz is determined to document a rare example of an ancient tradition.

After lots, and lots, and lots, of build-up, through rehearsals and arguments, the dance is performed only for the father to be found with his head cut off at the finale. Shocking stuff indeed!

The villagers on the whole are a strange bunch, characterised by low education and an odd dialect. In short the five sons are portrayed as buffoons, particularly the youngest who has epilepsy causing the other four to endlessly chorus soothing noises whenever he gets agitated. Their father is the blacksmith, William Anderson, known to all as the “Guiser,” an unpleasant fellow who is prone to shouting and who cut off his daughter when she chose to marry someone from a different class to them. I know that this was written in a different time when attitudes were very different, but I found it distasteful because the family were at the heart of the action and even by the end we knew little more about them.

So I already had a problem with the ordinary folk but when you combine that with the way the wealthy of the village both acted and were deferred to by everyone, including our esteemed detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn who was bought in when the local bobbies were unable to decide who, out of the entire village (as they all had a motive for murder) had committed the act. With everyone loudly telling each other to keep quiet or disappearing because they don’t like visitors my main source of tension was created by the very real sense that Inspector Alleyn would don his wellington boots and leave without solving the crime because he seemed a little reluctant to ask the questions that seemed blindingly obvious. Consequently by the time we had the reveal, and the solution to a few more of the little mysteries that had occurred, I’d either worked it out for myself, or I was pretty much past caring.

For all that, I did like the parallels with King Lear, the murder itself was well plotted and the isolation of such a village in winter is one I could easily imagine. Sadly I wasn’t anywhere near as fond of the class obsession the writer enforced on her readers.

Off With His Head is number 30 on The Classics Club challenge list and the sixth of my fifty choices that I’ve read and reviewed.


First Published UK: 1957
Publisher: HarperCollins
No of Pages: 288
Genre: Classic Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

21 thoughts on “Off With His Head – Ngaio Marsh

  1. The only book I’ve read by Ngaio Marsh is A Man Lay Dead which was her first crime fiction novel featuring Inspector Alleyn. The guests at a country house weekend party play a murder mystery game that ends in a real murder. But I read it six years ago and can’t remember whether there was also an obsession with class – all I noted at the time was that I wasn’t overly excited or puzzled by the mystery.


    1. It’s a difficult one because in some ways what I like about these classic crime novels is the depiction of the world as seen by their writers but the class obsession coupled with the long-winded investigation really turned me off this one…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry to hear that you were disappointed with this one, Cleo. I think Marsh did do some excellent novels. I have to say, though, that I don’t think this is her best. You do make a strong point about the class issues that come up in the book, for instance. If you do try another Marsh sometime, I hope you’ll like it better.


  3. Great review Cleo. I find it is difficult to write reviews when you are not a huge fan of the book. Do you find this to be true as well? Of course, in this case, the author is deceased so you don’t have the added pressure of hurting anyone’s feelings. Also, you worded your comments in a very eloquent and fair way.
    Do you find positive or negative reviews easier to write?


    1. Thank you and of course you are right, this was easier to write as the author is deceased although I did have to bear in mind she has many admirers!
      The reviews I actually find hardest are probably those books I enjoy the most as I worry it’s boring saying everything was great – it’s slightly easier for me to have some contrast and fortunately I rarely read books where I have nothing positive to say – I probably wouldn’t have finished this one except it was on my Classics Club list!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ha! Great review! Part of me is sorry you didn’t enjoy this more, but part of me is delighted, since I stopped reading Marsh way back in my twenties because I couldn’t stand her snobbery – somehow it’s so much worse than the snobbery of most of her contemporaries (though in truth, I have always struggled with Dorothy L Sayers for the same reason). I don’t remember reading this one, but I fear your description reminded me of everything I disliked about them. I think I have one to read as part of the Story of 100 Books challenge, but I can’t say I’m looking forward to it much…


    1. Thank you – For me it was snobbery with quite a nasty edge to it that was the problem… but to then take so long to get to the point just tipped me over the edge but that wasn’t enough then the Inspector wouldn’t ask the right questions to the right people… If I hadn’t had this on my Classics Club reading list I would have given up. I had the sense that maybe I’d picked one of her less well received books but I think it may take a while for me to try again. Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve only read A Man Lay Dead by Marsh and it did make me keen to read more of hers, but I may not use this as the starting point now! I think the class obsession would bother me too.


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