Thursday 18 March 2010

The Detective Novels of Ngaio Marsh

"She knows - but she mustn't be told!"

Ngaio Marsh was a damned good writer of detective stories – most of the time. She loved to lay bare an exotic milieu and a large cast of diverse characters, and was good at repulsive but attractive men, and sympathetic murderers. Here are my favourites and also-rans.

A Man Lay Dead (1934) Her debut in the cliché’d country house mode, plus Russian spies. We are introduced to her series detective, Roderick Alleyn. Not worth rereading.

Enter a Murderer (1935) She hits her stride with a theatrical background and the engaging journalist, Nigel Bathgate.

The Nursing Home Murder
(1935) We meet the prissy but perceptive lawyer Mr Ratisbon and learn a lot about social attitudes of the 30s.

Death in Ecstasy
(1936) Dodgy goings on in a fringe sect with likeable characters and an undercurrent of drug-dealing.

Vintage Murder
(1937) Back in New Zealand with a theatrical troupe. Skip the tasteless slapstick with a fat policeman.

Artists in Crime
(1938) Alleyn meets and falls in love with painter Agatha Troy. Watch out for gruesomeness and appalling snobbery.

Death in a White Tie
(1938) Set among debutantes. Apart from Lord Robert Gospell most of the characters are unappealing and coincidence takes too much of a hand.

Overture to Death (1939) Marsh is really nasty about femmes d’un certain age in love with the vicar.

Death at the Bar
(1940) A few interesting characters, but too gruesome again. She had a thing about vomiting. Review here.

Surfeit of Lampreys
(1941), published in USA as Death of a Peer. Unreadable – features an eccentric family we are supposed to like.

Death and the Dancing Footman
(1942) Right back on form as some bitter enemies are marooned by snowdrifts in the early days of the war. They include rival beauty specialists and a plastic surgeon.

Colour Scheme
(1943) Brilliant story with a Pygmalion theme set in a failing NZ spa.

Died in the Wool
(1945) Another terrific story with appealing characters set on a sheep farm in NZ (watch out for grisly corpse, though).

Final Curtain (1947) Troy Alleyn paints a theatrical knight while waiting for her detective husband to come home from NZ. Great story and characters including a cat and a horrid little girl. Pokes fun at fashionable Freudian psychology.

Swing Brother Swing (1949), published in USA as A Wreath for Rivera. The characters are involved with a ghastly jazz band and an agony “uncle”. Only flaw – the couple we care about are side-lined. Review here.

Opening Night (1951), published in USA as Night at the Vulcan. Her masterpiece and a Cinderella story set in the theatre. Seen largely through the eyes of an aspiring actress who gives the narrative a witty flavour.

Spinsters in Jeopardy
(1954), republished in the USA as The Bride of Death (1955). Sects and drugs in France. Great story, though she just can’t do children and is sentimental about the “salt of the earth” chauffeur.

Scales of Justice
(1955) One of her best, set among the country gentry. There are the usual soppy young lovers, but the real romance is between two middle-aged people.

Off With His Head
(1957), published in USA as Death of a Fool. I can’t reread this one, which is all about Morris dancing.

Singing in the Shrouds
(1959) A fabulous tale set on a cargo ship with passengers who include a priest, a lesbian, a femme fatale and a murderer. Review here.

False Scent
(1960) Great story with a theatrical cast and an ageing star. Review here.

Hand in Glove
(1962) Marsh puts snobbery under the microscope again in a country village. The young lovers are present, but likeable.

Dead Water (1964) Shenanigans around a healing spring on an island. I can’t reread this one either: the story and main characters are too nasty.

Death at the Dolphin
(1967), published in USA as Killer Dolphin. A cracker set in an old theatre where a young company is funded by a mysterious millionaire. Review here.

Clutch of Constables (1968) Wonderful on many levels. Troy Alleyn takes centre stage when she takes a river trip and begins to have doubts about her fellow passengers.

When in Rome (1970) A disparate set of characters end up on the same guided tour of “San Tommaso” with its Mithraic crypt. Great.

Tied Up in Tinsel
(1972) It's Christmas time at the Gothic prisoners' rehabilitation centre. I can’t reread this one, and apparently she had trouble with it.

Black As He's Painted
(1974) Her last masterpiece, focused on retired Sam Whipplestone, his London “village” and his knowledge of an obscure African country.

Last Ditch
(1977) Stars the Alleyns’ son and is difficult to get through.

Grave Mistake
(1978) She flickers back to something approaching form, but this is a pallid tale with a deeply unpleasant pub scene.

Photo Finish
(1980) Forgettable tale set on an island in an NZ lake.

Light Thickens
(1982) We return to the characters of Death at the Dolphin, but she should have left them where they were.

More on Marsh here, and links to the rest.

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