Ngaio Marsh, if you haven’t read her stuff, was one of the great mystery novelists. She wrote detective novels featuring her great creation, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, from the ’30s through to the ’80s. She was more prolific than Sayers and more literary than Christie, though not as colourful as either.
One of the things I had always noticed about her books was the exotic names she’d give to her female characters. On the average, there’d be one female character per book with a name that you’d never expect to see any real person wear around. Of course, Marsh’s own name, “Ngaio”, is quite uncommon outside New Zealand; it’s a Maori word. It’s easy to imagine a connection between Marsh choosing an unusual name for herself (“Ngaio” was actually her middle name; her first name was “Edith”) and choosing unusual names for her characters.
Inspector Alleyn, for instance. I always have to look up how to pronounce it. Or his wife, Agatha Troy: a standard enough name, but she’s called “Troy”, not “Agatha”, which is unusual.
When I say a name is unusual, I might mean several things: a word not usually used as a name pressed into service, or some noticeable alliteration or rhyming, or simply a name that’s really rare or elaborate. Or sounds cooler than real-life names tend to sound. I don’t consider a name that originates in a language other than English to be unusual just because it’s not English, but, in a classic detective story set in England partway through the 20th century, it might be just unusual enough to be the most unusual one in that book. (Note that Marsh set quite a few of her mysteries in theatres, so some of these unusual names are stage names, which means they have an excuse for being larger-than-life.)
So I went through all the Inspector Alleyn novels and short stories, and picked out the most wild-ass women’s names from each book, and listed them below. But as I was doing so I noticed that a lot of the male characters had equally weird names, so I thought I’d list those too.
I’m not criticizing Marsh for giving her characters these names. I just find it interesting.
A Man Lay Dead (1934): Nothing of interest here. Angela North, Rosamund Grant, Marjorie Wilde. She hasn’t really found her rhythm yet.
Enter a Murderer (1935): It’s between Janet Emerald and Dulcie Deamer.
The Nursing Home Murder (1935): Still finding the range. The pick of this novel is either Cicely O’Callaghan or a hospital matron named Sister Marigold.
Death in Ecstasy (1936): Dagmar Candour.
Vintage Murder (1937): Pretty conventional again. Carolyn Dacres, Valerie Gaynes, Susan Max.
Artists in Crime (1938): First appearance of Agatha Troy, but the real standouts in this book are Valmai Seacliff, and, if you need more, Sonia Gluck and Phillida Lee.
Death in a White Tie (1938): I dunno. Lady Evelyn Carrados, I guess.
Overture to Death (1939): Idris Campanula. It was probably old Idris who inspired me to do this list in the first place.
Death at the Bar (1940): Decima Moore.
Surfeit of Lampreys (1941): The sisters Frid and Patch Lamprey. (Actually Friede and Patricia, but Marsh does use nicknames.)
Death and the Dancing Footman (1942): What would you rather: Sandra Compline, Chloris Wynne, Elise Lisse, or Lady Hersey Ablington? They’ll all do.
Colour Scheme (1943): Probably a maid named Huia. It’s a Maori name, and so not necessarily unusual, but I’d rather that than Barbara Claire.
Died in the Wool (1945): Ursula Harme.
Final Curtain (1947): Millamant Ancred. (But note also her relatives, Jenetta and Fenella Ancred, and young Panty Ancred (nicknamed for Patricia. What’s Marsh have against Patricias?).
Swing Brother Swing (1949): Several to choose from. Cecile de Fouteaux Pastern and Bagott (that’s all one name; “Pastern and Bagott” is the surname), Félicité de Suze, and Carlisle Wayne.
Opening Night (1951): Martyn Tarne, although there’s also Gay Gainsford.
Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954): Slim pickings here; Annabella Wells, I guess.
Scales of Justice (1955): Kitty Cartarette.
Off With His Head (1957): Camilla Campion.
Singing in the Shrouds (1959): You can have Jemima Carmichael, or possibly Mrs. Dillington-Blick.
False Scent (1960): Anelida Lee, or maybe Pinky Cavendish.
Hand in Glove (1962): Let’s say Nicola Maitland-Mayne. Or Moppett Ralston (nickname for Mary).
Dead Water (1964): Elspeth Cost.
Death at the Dolphin (1967): Destiny Meade.
Clutch of Constables (1968): Hazel Rickerby-Carrick.
When in Rome (1970): Not much here. Sophy Jason?
Tied Up in Tinsel (1972): Cressida Tottenham.
Black As He’s Painted (1974): Xenoclea Sanskrit.
Last Ditch (1977): No obvious winners, but you can have Julia, Selina, Julietta, or Carlotta Pharamond, or Dulcie Harkness, or Susie de Waite.
Grave Mistake (1978): Verity Preston or Prunella Foster.
Photo Finish (1980): Isabella Sommita.
Light Thickens (1982): There seems to be some kind of minor character named “Rangi”, which I can’t imagine what it’s short for.
“Death on the Air”: Phillipa Tonks.
“I Can Find My Way Out”: Coralie Bourne or Dendra Gay.
“Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery”: Nobody really. Fanny Wagstaff?
A Man Lay Dead (1934): Hubert Handesley.
Enter a Murderer (1935): Arthur Surbonadier.
The Nursing Home Murder (1935): Very ordinary names in this book. Derek O’Callaghan?
Death in Ecstasy (1936): Raoul de Ravigne, or maybe Jasper Garnette.
Vintage Murder (1937): Hailey Hambledon.
Artists in Crime (1938): Basil Pilgrim.
Death in a White Tie (1938): Colombo Dimitri.
Overture to Death (1939): Jocelyn Jernigham.
Death at the Bar (1940): Nobody really stands out. I’ll take Sebastian Parish.
Surfeit of Lampreys (1941): There’s a chauffeur named Giggle.
Death and the Dancing Footman (1942): Aubrey Mandrake.
Colour Scheme (1943): Dikon Bell or Septimus Falls.
Died in the Wool (1945): Fabian Losse.
Final Curtain (1947): Cedric Ancred.
Swing Brother Swing (1949): Breezy Bellairs, Happy Hart, or Sydney Skelton.
Opening Night (1951): Parry Percival.
Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954): Carbury Glande.
Scales of Justice (1955): Octavius Danberry-Phinn.
Off With His Head (1957): Nobody really. Ralph Stayne?
Singing in the Shrouds (1959): Aubyn Dale.
False Scent (1960): Bertie Saracen.
Hand in Glove (1962): Either Percival Pyke Period or Bimbo Dodds.
Dead Water (1964): Ives Nankivell.
Death at the Dolphin (1967): Peregrine Jay.
Clutch of Constables (1968): Mmm, maybe the Rev. J. de B. Lazenby. (Dunno what the J and B stand for.)
When in Rome (1970): Hamilton Sweet.
Tied Up in Tinsel (1972): Hilary Bill-Tasman or Frederick Fleaton Forrester.
Black As He’s Painted (1974): Not much to choose from. Samuel Whipplestone?
Last Ditch (1977): Jasper Pharamond or Cuthbert Harkness.
Grave Mistake (1978): Walter Cloudesley or Basil Schramm.
Photo Finish (1980): Montague V. Reece.
Light Thickens (1982): Dougal Macdougal.
“Death on the Air”: Septimus Tonks.
“I Can Find My Way Out”: Canning Cumberland.
“Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery”: Richard De’ath.
I haven’t updated this website in quite a while. I am still writing. Not as often as I’d like, but I am still writing.
Here’s something that I realized recently. And for all I know, I’m the only one who’s realized it. I did search the web to see if this was a well-known thing, but found nothing.
It has to do with James Thurber’s fantasy novel The 13 Clocks. The 13 Clocks has been somewhat in the news recently, thanks to Neil Gaiman’s laudable efforts to bring attention to it and get it back into print. I first heard of the book, I dunno, a bunch of years ago and tracked down a copy at a library discard store. I liked it but I don’t know if I had reread it since that first time before just recently.
When I heard about Gaiman’s crusade, I thought to myself, I should read that again. So I read it to my son as bedtime reading. Now, there’s one part… hold on.
There’s one part where Zorn, the hero of the story, and his friend the Golux have to collect a bunch of gems in a really short time. They’ve heard of a woman named Hagga who cries gemstones, so they figure they should go to her. They use this magical rose that they have to find their way to her, but when they get there, they can’t get her to cry. She’s all cried out because everybody wants her gems.
The good news is, tears of laughter produce gems too. They don’t last as long as the cried kind but Zorn doesn’t mind that. So they try to get her to laugh. This doesn’t work well either, and it looks like they’ve failed. And then, suddenly, Hagga starts laughing like crazy for no particular reason and cries jewels all over the place. Zorn and the Golux collect up the gemstones and thank her and take off out of there.
So, when I read it, I thought that that was pretty weak. They need her to laugh, and she doesn’t, and then all of a sudden she does? Inexplicably? Because of nothing that Zorn or the Golux did? That’s no way to tell a story. So why did Hagga laugh?
But! Then I noticed the last paragraph of that chapter, after Zorn and the Golux have left:
Inside the hut, something red and larger than a ruby glowed among the jewels and Hagga picked it up. “A rose,” she said. “They must have dropped it.”
Obviously this is the magical rose they used to find her in the first place; that part is no problem. The key thing here is, “dropping a rose” is a euphemism for farting. And in the world of The 13 Clocks, the boundaries between the metaphorical and the actual are pretty blurry. So maybe that’s what Hagga was laughing at! Maybe Thurber had the plot of his fairy tale, and the fates of Zorn of Zorna, Princess Saralinda, and the evil duke, all depend on his own fart joke.
Does this hold water for anybody?
I’d really like to know what Neil Gaiman thinks about it. Oh well…
It’s been a long time since I did one of these. I should start doing them more; I like it.
Let’s go over the rules again. What we’re trying to do is examine princess characters in popular culture and give them points for how much they deviate from the helpless-princess stereotype.
1. Qualifications: 1 point for being the daughter of the reigning king; 0 points for being the daughter of a dethroned king, or who is only princess because she marries a prince, or she’s like an emperor’s daughter or something and doesn’t have the exact title; -1 points if she’s just from a non-royal rich or noble family. The idea here is that first we want to pin down whether our character is, technically, a princess.
2. Skills: 0 points if she’s totally useless; 1 point if she can do anything useful at all; 2 points if she’s good at archery or magic; 3 points if she can do something typically masculine like swordfighting.
3. Love Life: If she’s somebody’s love interest, that’s 0 points. If she’s the hero’s love interest, that’s -1 points. If she’s happily single, that’s +1 points. If she’s the main character of her book or movie or whatever, +1, and if she’s gay, also +1.
4. Beauty: -1 points if she’s the most beautiful of all; 0 points if she’s beautiful; 1 point if she’s cute or tomboyish or if her looks aren’t specified; 2 points if she’s described as plain; 3 points if she’s described as ugly.
5. Accomplishments: Does she do anything useful in the story? If no, 0; not much, 1; some, 2; if she’s indispensable, 3; if she starts off dependent but overcomes it, an extra +1. And if she screws everything up she gets -1.
6. If she becomes Queen at any point, another +1.
7. If she has close female friends her own age, +1.
8. If there’s something else cool about her that’s not captured by this list, +1 or maybe even +2.
9. If she’s portrayed, as a character, with particular skill or depth, +1 or even +2.
Note that I eyeballed this whole scale; I’m not pretending that there’s science involved here. And if anybody has any ideas for other points to rate on here,
Today we’re looking at Princess Cimorene of Lindenwall, the main character (more or less) in Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles. (It’s a weird series because the fourth book was written first, and then the first three were written as prequels. And Cimorene isn’t even in the fourth book much; her son is the main character. So we get Cimorene’s adventures in the first book, and that’s cool, and then the second book is from Mendanbar’s point of view (Mendanbar being the guy Cimorene eventually marries). And those are both good. But they can be good because they’re deep background for the fourth book. The third book is from the PoV of Morwen, Cimorene’s friend, and it’s full of setup for the fourth book and suffers because of it.)
Princess Cimorene of Linderwall
Fictional Source: “The Enchanted Forest Chronicles” by Patricia C. Wrede (1985 through 1995)
1. Cimorene is a legit princess. (1)
2. Cimorene has all kinds of skills. She tries to learn swordfighting but doesn’t get very far; I give her partial credit for that. (2.5)
3. Cimorene ends the first book happily single, and I’m tempted to give some credit for that, except that the fourth book had already been written so there was never any thought that she should stay that way. She’s the hero’s love interest in book 2, but is arguably the main character of the series, so that maps out to 0 points altogether. (0)
4. Cimorene is specifically described as beautiful, even if it isn’t the fluffy blonde kind of beautiful that they apparently favour in Lindenwall. (0)
5. Cimorene is indispensable. (3)
6. Cimorene does become Queen. (1)
7. Cimorene actually has quite a few friends. Even if you don’t count Kazul, there’s still Morwen, and also Alianora, another dragon’s princess. (1)
8. I don’t think there are any other details that she needs credit for.
9. No, it’s a pretty light series of books; no extra credit here.
So that’s a total of 8.5; let’s put it on the board.