Golden Age of Mystery #2: Ngaio Marsh


Today, Ngaio Marsh. This is the first time I’ve actually read any of her mysteries, though I’ve watched a few of the Malahide/BBC productions, and I think I’ll be reading more. Thankfully, Marsh was one of the longer lived and more productive (in terms of mystery writing) Grande Dames of The Golden Age, so I have a lot to read. The two I picked for purposes of a blog post were Death at the Bar and Final Curtain1.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Marsh’s origins and continued residence in New Zealand, these strike me as very much English, though I wouldn’t mind hearing what modern British readers think of them. Death at the Bar is set in a stereotypical rural pub, complete with stereotypical heavily accented rural bumpkins and power that goes out at the clap of a thunderbolt, thus aiding the perpetrator at a conveniently crucial moment. The plot is fairly simple–an annoying lawyer (solicitor. barrister. whatever.) dies, ostensibly when his finger is nicked by a dart poisoned with cyanide by a man not familiar to the lawyer. The catch is, not surprisingly, that the dart can’t have been poisoned by the man who threw it. Final Curtain has a similarly classic/stereotyped setting: a Great Home filled with family members come home to celebrate the Head of the Family’s 75th birthday. Head of Family dies, presumably of a gastritis attack, leaving a houseful of family, any of whom would have cause to kill him as a result of a lifetime of squabbling, and one outsider, Alleyn’s wife ‘Troy’, who’s been called in to paint a life sized portrait of Head of Family as his birthday present to himself.

These are whodunits rather than police procedurals in the modern sense, as the readers are as much in the dark about the identity of the murderer as the police throughout the books, but they do center on the detection of crime by police officers. As it happens, both involved poisoning (thallium and cyanide), though I expect Marsh branched out a bit in her choice of murder “weapons” in her other books. Marsh’s detective is Roderick Alleyn, supposedly based on Lord Peter Wimsey, but I couldn’t see much of a similarity other than the social position of the detective, and not much is made of that2; Alleyn is very much a police officer, doing police work. His relationship with his sidekick, Fox, also harks back to Marsh’s predecessors and contemporaries; Fox is closer to Grant’s William than Holmes’ Watson in duties and temperament, but sidekick he is. Though there’s nothing to compare with being proposed to in Latin (and responding in same), at the risk of ruffling all the Sayers fans out there, I have to admit that I find Alleyn’s inamorata much less irritating than Wimsey’s, not least because Troy is much less Mary Sueish than Vane3.

I have to describe them both as period pieces now; writing styles change along with how one may describe peripheral characters. Overall, Marsh’s writing style in the ones I’ve read or glanced through is largely dialogue, action and Alleyn’s observation, with minimal exposition involving the characters’ motivation, background, psychology and the like, though we do find out a great deal through the dialogue. If you liked these, you might try Simenon (this is a tentative suggestion, as I haven’t read Simenon yet) They’re both embryonic police procedurals; they emphasize the primary detective and his relationship with coworkers, though police work plays an important part in the novels. Also, there are a lot of them, written over a number of decades.

1as it happens, two of the three BBC adaptations, though that’s not why I picked them
2at least not in the two I read
3Vane was a mystery author, Troy a painter

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