A group of related bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in December will be devoted to Ngaio Marsh.
My five most and least favourite Ngaio Marsh novels
(and why I think so)
Last week I performed this same exercise with respect to Ellery Queen. That, frankly, was easy compared to this. For me, the EQ novels were quite easy to rank sufficiently to produce a five-best/five worst list. Ngaio Marsh is quite a different matter. There are no “great” Marsh novels — no absolute masterpiece that has stood the test of time and received the universal adulation of critics and readers. In this, Marsh stands alone among the Crime Queens of the Golden Age; everyone can rattle off the best and the worst Agatha Christies, etc., or the one that stands above the rest for almost any Golden Age writer.
That being said, there are no really terrible ones either. Okay, like many, many of the Golden Age masters, she probably should have stopped writing about two novels before she actually did. (Her third-last novel, Grave Mistake from 1978, would have made an excellent close to a long career.) And like many of the Golden Age masters near the end of their lives, she was apparently too powerful to edit. To me they read like she wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the process. But that’s as may be.
What that suggests is that there is a large undifferentiated mass of 32 novels that are all more or less well-written; none too bad, none too good. And honestly, I think this is the case. There don’t seem to be identifiable periods, as with Ellery Queen; there are no repeating themes that last more than a handful of volumes (theatrical backgrounds, members of Alleyn’s family helping with the detection).
There’s one common fault in many Marsh novels for which she is well known — the dreaded “Act II sag”. The stage has been set, the characters introduced, the body has just been discovered. Then Alleyn arrives on the scene and everything slows right d-o-w-n to a crawl as Alleyn and Fox interview each suspect separately, more or less a chapter apiece. Sometimes the book recovers its pace (especially when there is a prompt and unexpected second murder), sometimes Alleyn goes back for another round of interviews (zzzzzzzz). So one of the ways I identify my favourites is if they lack the Act II sag.
Another way I decided on my favourite Marsh novels is by assessing the characterization. Marsh is highly esteemed for the excellence of her characters; people remark that they are vivid and colourful and realistic and, many times, endearing. I tend to agree, although my natural pessimism militates against me enjoying the wackier, more free-spirited characters as much as others do. Marsh had the knack of creating memorable characters. Only occasionally did she have the knack of creating memorable believable characters, and it’s these instances that I esteem more highly.
Similarly, Marsh’s plot structures range from “thoroughly realistic” to “what was she smoking?”. One black hole into which she seems to fall is the introduction of plot elements based on drug smuggling. As I’ve remarked elsewhere (a link will be below) Marsh apparently knew bugger-all about drugs and their underlying economics and so the attempts of Alleyn and the Yard to deal with smuggling-related murders are sometimes dire. Similarly, Marsh’s experience in the theatre is definitely an asset as background for the novels. Where it fails for me is when she attempts to describe the actual process of putting on a play. Oh, I’m sure she has the details right, it’s just that no producer in his right mind would take on most of the ones she’s invented. (And, parenthetically, I have yet to think of any realistic reason why, in Killer Dolphin, a very wealthy gentleman should make a present of a theatre to a complete stranger, except that the plot cannot move forward without that happening.) She is at her best when she is writing about actors, but not so great writing about their work. Fortunately she’s better with painters/sculptors and their products; for some reason she has the knack of being able to show you a piece of art and you can believe that it’s excellent by the way she describes it. I like her work when I can believe in all the underlying premises and there’s nothing that sticks out as comparatively phony.
So ultimately there is not much among which to choose five most favourites and five least favourites. I had two in each category immediately and then had to scrape around and consider … no novel actually moved between lists, but for the final three in each category, I might have exchanged the title with a dozen others in the “beta-minus/gamma-plus” category.
What finally ended up tipping the balance in favour of the list you see has to do with a strange coincidence. In connection with another project upon which I’m working, last year I had the not entirely unpleasant task of re-reading all of Marsh. And ultimately that’s where this list came from. I simply asked myself, which novels could I stand to immediately re-read, and which would I avoid as long as possible? And that’s the list you have before you.
As always in situations like this, your mileage may vary. I frequently find that people cherish one or another Ngaio Marsh novel because of something that speaks to them individually; they love that a zany peer would work as a nightclub drummer, or they find personal parallels in the story of a woman MP in rural New Zealand, or they find the bathetic story of a starving young actress has touched their heart. I cannot gainsay your feelings, folks, and I won’t dare to try. If you have a reason for liking a book that you particularly like, that’s fine with me. Merely allow me mine, is all.
My five most favourite Ngaio Marsh novels
And, as you will soon note, in reverse numerical order. My favourite novel is at the end of this list.
5. Vintage Murder (1937)
I note that this is the earliest Marsh novel I favour. Up until now, she was still experimenting and finding her way. But in her fifth novel a number of different things begin to work successfully to produce a satisfying and ultimately charming mystery. One is that she’s learned to depict “good” characters who aren’t all good, and “bad” ones who are leavened with humanity. Another is that she goes here for the first time to the locale which many people believe to be her greatest strength, her home country of New Zealand. A featured Maori character is a fully-rounded person. She also mixes this with her great knowledge of the theatrical milieu and tells a convincing story of a traveling repertory company; a training ground for young ingenues, a retirement scheme for an elderly character actress, and a starring role for a lead actress married to an impresario. We see how a small community reacts to the visit from an outside “celebrity”, and it’s really well-observed stuff. Ultimately what I like about this novel is that it’s a smart mystery with great local colour and interesting, believable characters. I can forgive the hesitant suggestions of a potential love interest for Alleyn here, pre-Troy, but it’s interesting to know that he sets his sights high (the lead, not the ingenue). And all this comes together in a book that has the evanescent and rare quality of charm.
4. Death at the Bar (1940)
This one I enjoyed because it sets out to tell a small story and really accomplishes its job well. Instead of a broad cast of characters there are really only a couple here, quite detailed and intelligently drawn; this is one of the novels where I believe Marsh really does understand people and, more importantly, has affection for their foibles. This novel suffers a tiny bit from a certain air of coldness … the characters are not so deliberately likeable as many of her others. But when you compare the murderer in this one from a similar situation in a novel of hers five years previously, it’s like night and day. This murderer is nuanced and believable. And the milieu! Obviously I can’t say how much time Marsh had to spend in a country pub, or many, in order to lay the groundwork for what we see here. But I really enjoy seeing something that is as well understood as the village pub at the centre of a small village, and shown to us not in its full detailed glory, as might have Freeman Wills Crofts, but as a detailed background to a small and well-crafted mystery. There’s a bit of Act II sag, but ultimately I believed that this murder had been committed for believable reasons by a believable character, and that’s not always the case with Marsh.
3. Scales of Justice (1955)
Since I find one of the most enjoyable things about Marsh’s novels to be the way that intelligently-drawn characters do realistic things against a well-understood background, this has always been a favourite of mine. Marsh really does understand people from this social milieu — small-village dwellers of the upper middle classes, who have to keep up appearances and whose lives are tiny little circles always consisting of the same people, with whom one has to coexist or else move away. The actual conflicts here are so hard-fought precisely because, as is often said of academia, the stakes are so small. Here the trophies are the sexual favours of a poisonous, acquisitive, and bored woman, and the catching of a well-known fish (yes, really), the Old ‘Un, that has tempted anglers for years. Two different things that work together oddly well to produce a fine mystery, with some interesting forensic bits about a kind of “fingerprint analysis” of fish scales.
2. Colour Scheme (1943)
Again, interesting characters against an interesting background makes for an interesting novel, and the fact that the espionage plot that underlies it is a bit creaky is made up for by the realization that it’s not all that important to the novel. Here is a gruesome murder — the victim encounters a volcanic fumarole in rural New Zealand that is offered as an amenity at a gauche and mawkish health spa. This dubious resort plays host to a Shakepearean actor on holiday with his assistant, and various guests who might be associated with WWII Axis submarines and coded messages. One of these visitors turns out to be Inspector Alleyn, incognito for most of the novel, who clears away the awkward romance plot and various petty machinations to bring home the murder. A large part of what makes this novel so fascinating is its setting; you truly believe that this is what rural New Zealand was like during wartime, and for once Marsh allows her writing skills to take pride of place in beautiful descriptive writing to show us the landscape and the magnificent wildness of the area.
1. Overture to Death (1939)
It’s possible that this Ngaio Marsh novel, for me, has something that attracts me that is entirely idiosyncratic. I can’t say why it has remained clear in my mind since I first read it, perhaps 30 years ago. It’s a small story of a rural murder in a tiny village. There are only a few characters available for the role of murderer. The story hook is superb; who among us can put down a novel where a childish prank (of firing a water pistol when a certain piano chord is struck) has its stakes heightened when someone adds a real pistol to the mix? Not me. But I think what makes this the best Marsh novel for me is that the mystery and the background are perfectly integrated. This doesn’t always happen; in other novels, Marsh has been known to wedge irrelevant stuff in just to keep the action moving right along, and calls people by silly names just to pique the reader’s interest. In this book the meshing is perfect; there is a tiny observation made by one of the characters about another that you think is adding to characterization, but it’s actually a key clue and fools the reader beautifully. And, without giving too much away, this murderer is believable in word and deed.
My five least favourite Ngaio Marsh novels
Again, in reverse numerical order.
5. Tied Up In Tinsel (1972)
I know this one will be done to death over the Christmas season, because of its Christmas theme; all I can say is, if this is what I’m getting for Christmas, I’ll take the lump of coal. The idea of a wealthy man getting his servants in the way described here is not only ridiculous but patronizing and oppressive; the servants themselves are vulgar cardboard conceptions (especially the gay cook, a repellent caricature). Uncle Flea and Aunt Bed are forgettable creatures whose funny names are one of Marsh’s worst writing habits (viz., Tinkerton and Giggle elsewhere). There’s a young actress who is characterized as seemingly everything that Marsh hates about “modern theatre”, and it just makes the writer look like a fuddy-duddy. The plot is completely obvious, if you’re paying attention, and the murderer’s identity is not a surprise to anyone who’s read Artists in Crime. So the plot is silly, the characters are silly, and nothing happens in Act II. Even Troy Alleyn, uncharacteristically on hand to provide first-person narration for Act I, is wasted here. The murderer is revealed, apparently, because Marsh realized she’d reached her word count; nothing is stopping her from ending this about page 120 except that, and Act II is so thoroughly dead that it took me three tries to make it through this novel. Trust me — there are better Christmas mysteries if you need one.
4. Last Ditch (1977)
I’ve had my say about this novel before; it’s #7 on my list of Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read. (The review is here.) It’s an ugly little novel about squalid and repellent people and it’s hard to say who is more unpleasant, the putative drug smugglers or the aristocrats. And I think this is the novel in which Marsh gives full license to an unpleasant part of her writing life. My theory is that Marsh created Troy Alleyn so that she could fantasize about being married to “Handsome” Alleyn of the CID; not content with that, she created Handsome’s son Ricky, who was apparently created to fall in love with older women and give Ms. Marsh a thrill. There are a couple of other characters in her oeuvre who seem designed as wish-fulfillment boyfriends for an older woman, notably the interchangeable male protagonists of Killer Dolphin and the ghastly Mr. Gardener, the gardener, in Grave Mistake (Marsh as Lady Chatterly) but Ricky Alleyn is just too awful to bear. This book is devoted to his wonderfulness and you may need an insulin shot before you finish it. The murder plot is silly and the drug smuggling plot is absolutely, completely ridiculous. And Ricky Alleyn to me seems to be so deeply buried in the closet that he is in danger of becoming a garment bag — entirely unbeknownst to his creator.
3. Surfeit of Lampreys (1940)
Let’s get this over with — you probably like this novel a lot and I don’t like it at all. There, I’ve said it. Apparently I am a curmudgeon, because I do not think the Lamprey family is charming and zany and madcap and devil-may-care; I think they are loathsome and awful. “But, Noah, you love Phoebe Atwood Taylor and other writers about zany individualistic iconoclasts!” Yes, I do. But to me the Lampreys (who become the Pharamonds in Last Ditch) are wastrels and parasites. They spend their days thinking about how to get away with maintaining their lavish lifestyle at the expense of their wealthier and more diligent relatives. When you do a weird Maori haka on the docks of London to welcome your New Zealand friend, you’re not being charming, you’re just an attention-seeking show-off, and I don’t want to be near you. This book seems like Marsh is reminiscing about being a provincial little sparrow impressed by a glittering and meretricious social set that is ultimately cold and empty, except that she never realized it. Nostalgie de la boue, except that there’s no boue, just glitter and a broken expensive vase. And being around these people for longer than an hour — my lord, it’s like they’re all on coke and never run out of supply. The murder here is unnecessarily horrific and violent; a meat skewer through the eye that nails an elderly peer to the wall of an elevator. The sub-plot about black magic is apparently based on five minutes’ research about Hand of Glory, and is unbelievable. The murderer is so faceless that I defy anyone to give a physical description a week after closing the book. And there is one telling moment at the end that sums it all up for me. After teetering on the brink of complete bankruptcy for weeks and months, the Lampreys finally inherit some money and seem safe … except the matriarch then starts making plans for a little getaway in Monte Carlo, and redecorating their new home, and and and. It makes me wish ever so slightly for the days of the tumbril and guillotine.
2.The Nursing-Home Murder (1935)
This is Marsh’s third novel and I’ve always disliked it a lot. This is partly because it was written within an antique tradition that seems to cross the traditional puzzle mystery with political hugger-mugger at the Highest Levels, rather like E. Phillips Oppenheim collaborating with Agatha Christie. In fact this seems to be a book that relies on politics for its tensions, except that the author doesn’t really understand politics. So she creates cardboard characters with lofty titles and makes them unpleasant and immoral. I have seen this done well by authors who actually understand politics, but here … well, there’s a nurse who is a “bolshie” — Bolshevik, and I recommend looking it up, since it doesn’t seem clear to me that Marsh actually knew what she was putting into the mouth of this character. The effect is of someone who doesn’t know exactly why she wants political change, she just does, but I can’t believe she knows what she’s talking about — and neither does Marsh, it seems. The murderer’s motivation is ridiculous to the modern reader and I am pretty sure that it would have been so to someone who’d bought the first edition; I don’t believe it and it doesn’t hang together. I’m barely willing to believe that my lack of understanding is because I wasn’t alive in 1935 and don’t understand the politics involved — but in that case, no one ever will and we can just shelve this book altogether. Cardboard characters, ridiculous plot, and misunderstood politics; Christianna Brand did this milieu a lot better in Green For Danger and made us laugh too.
1. Singing in the Shrouds (1958)
SPOILER ALERT: You may find out more than you wish about the ending of this volume AND of Christianna Brand’s Heads You Lose. I haven’t named names and have given few clues, but be warned out of an excess of caution.
I expect by now you might be wondering what it is about this particular novel that has drawn (perhaps even merited) my particular disapproval. Well, as I said above, part of this is idiosyncratic. This and one other mystery — Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand — have the most annoying ending in detective fiction, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not worried that I will be spoiling anything for you here, especially, although I’ll speak here in general terms. The murderer is revealed, shortly before the end of the book, to be a person with some sort of “split personality” disorder such that half of them is sane and half is crazy, and neither is aware that the other is around. Believe me, there is no chance that you can identify a murderer who isn’t really aware that they have committed the murder in the first place. What this means in practical terms is that the murderer can be any character in the book because the reasoning underlying the crime is insane, and so any ridiculous combination of events can have eventuated. It’s the mystery equivalent of “Suddenly they were all run over by a truck and died” as the final chapter, and I get very angry when I encounter it. It’s insulting to a reader who is prepared to invest thought into the ending of a book before the ending is reached and it’s just a big cheat. So that’s what happened here. Added to which, this story is psychologically ridiculous. Essentially, in order to commit murder, the insane personality of the murderer requires the presence of three separate circumstances. When those three items show up at the same place and time, at precisely ten-day intervals, the Killer’s Trifecta is attained and the nearest young woman gets strangled. But that’s just ridiculous in realistic terms. Marsh just made up some foofaraw about how mental illness works and used it to justify a very silly plot that depends upon, literally, coincidence. I can accept a Golden Age novel like this if it’s from 1935, not 1958. I mean, good heavens, The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis came out in 1948; 1958 is not the psychological Dark Ages in terms of general knowledge.
And then the characters on this closed-circle cruise ship are horrible caricatures, every one. First in the offensiveness stakes is a sissified steward whose function in the novel is to dress up like one of the female passengers in order to be brutally murdered — that and provoke a few bitchy remarks about how gay he is. Dennis doesn’t appear to have had a last name, he’s just there to be “a queer steward” (I quote Alleyn) and die. There is a pair of married Provincial Oafs straight out of BBC Light Comedy of 1955; there is a Famous Drunk; there is a Young Couple in the Throes of New Love, a favourite of Marsh’s repertoire. And there is the ghastly female who plays a primary role in the activities, the vivacious and sexually available harridan — femme fatale — Mrs. Dillington-Blick. There is a Middle-Aged Prissy Guy and two Serious Religious People because Marsh needed to get a few words in about sin and insanity. Half of this characterization is just for convenience — comic relief, people to look vaguely guilty. And quite a bit of the other half is Marsh exhibiting some unconscious but moderately clear prejudices against effeminate gay men and sexually active middle-aged straight women. It’s distasteful and grubby.
So, horrible murder plot, ghastly awful characterization, and a dollop of nasty prejudice add up for me to the Ngaio Marsh novel that it will be least likely to be re-read by me in a hurry. If ever.
I will conclude by saying here, before people start to pour invective at me in the comments section 😉 that in case it’s not clear from my approach, I think Ngaio Marsh is an extremely significant figure in the history of detective fiction. She has remained pretty much constantly in print since the invention of paperbacks (1939 in North America) and that is a privilege afforded to only a few writers. I’ve read every piece of fiction she ever wrote — at least twice. I wouldn’t describe myself as a huge fan, but I think I can honestly recommend that you read all these books, even the ones I dislike. For one thing, taking in the sweep of the full 34 novels will be a worthwhile exercise in diligence, especially if you read them as I recommend, in chronological order. You’ll learn a lot about the social history of middle-class England (not so much about the aristos, although she tried). There’s some fine writing, especially about theatre people and New Zealand, and occasionally her various skills come together with a very satisfying click. And she’s famous for a reason.