Probably my regular readers are already familiar with the reason this book exists. Ngaio Marsh died in 1982, after publishing 32 novels about Roderick Alleyn, second son of a baronet and a police inspector with Scotland Yard. She left behind three short chapters comprising the introduction to the present volume, as well as “a page of rough notes”; the notes did not apparently solve the murder or provide a motive and stipulated that all the action of the book takes place over the course of one night.
The daunting task of fashioning a book out of this sparse beginning was given to Stella Duffy, who shares a number of personal characteristics with the late Dame Ngaio. Duffy is originally from New Zealand, moved to London, works in theatre, writes detective fiction, and was awarded an OBE. As Duffy elsewhere remarked, “I would have been a bit miffed if they had asked someone else.” I agree it seems like a natural match.
I must here note that the “call to adventure” came from David Brawn, who is “estates manager” at Harper Collins. Brawn was responsible for the continuance of Hercule Poirot as by Sophie Hannah in 2014, in The Monogram Murders (about which I commented here). Brawn and what are now two Poirot novels by Sophie Hannah have received my criticism in the past — I’m still quite creeped out by the existence of an estates manager at a major publishing house and have been quite disparaging about the whole idea here. In that article I damned with faint praise the work of Stella Duffy, who has continued to entertain me with her writing, and expressed my displeasure with the idea that Ngaio Marsh needed in any sense to be continued.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have changed my mind, and I apologize to all concerned. If David Brawn can bring books like this to the public, he himself deserves an OBE, and Stella Duffy deserves the Gold Dagger. This is the best continuation novel I’ve ever read. Duffy has combined a real grasp of Marsh’s traditional themes, preoccupations, and even language with the ability to write like Marsh and, may I add, Marsh at her best. Ngaio Marsh at her best means somewhere around 1940 to 1945, and that’s when Marsh set this book (and Duffy continued and finished it). If you are that kind of Ngaio Marsh fan and you haven’t got time to read the rest of this, here’s the conclusion I want you to reach: buy this book immediately because you will enjoy it very much.
Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others; I discuss elements of plot and construction although I do not lay out the answers. If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What is this book about?
Inspector Alleyn is in New Zealand, at a point in World War 2 when its invasion by Japan is forecast as a strong possibility. The recovering soldiers and local patients at Mount Seager Hospital include Alleyn, who is doing a quiet little job of investigation involving some coded radio transmissions and pretending to be an invalid as cover; he has been in the hospital but not really part of it. The pulse of the experienced reader will quicken faintly as the opening pages reveal a rough map of the grounds of the hospital grounds and buildings.
The everyday activities of the hospital involve a number of staff members: handsome young Dr. Hughes and crabby old Sister Comfort, Father O’Sullivan the unctuous vicar and various nurses and workers, and most especially the convalescing patients, all take their orders from the serene and authoritative Matron. A number of things happen roughly simultaneously at the outset of this night. The death of young Sydney Brown’s grandfather has caused him great distress, and his bereavement is being mitigated. A fat and pompous government payroll clerk, Mr. Glossop, has to spend the night at the hospital due to bad weather and needs to lock his cash in the Matron’s safe. One young and pretty nurse, the less than chaste Rosamund Farquharson, has won the enormous sum of one hundred pounds betting on an outsider at the races, and has also been relieved of it by Matron to put it in the safe for safekeeping. And there is a welter of personal relationships and romantic frustrations and sins small and large that are hinted at in the opening chapters.
Since the title of this book is Money in the Morgue, the experienced reader will not be surprised to learn that both the money and the Matron disappear quite soon into the book, although her body shows up in short order. Alleyn reveals his police credentials and, with the assistance of Sergeant Bix of the New Zealand Army substituting for his usual assistant Inspector Fox, takes charge of the case.
The plot’s the thing here, and since the action of the book takes place over such a short period of time, just about anything I say will spoil your enjoyment. I’ll merely note that Alleyn, in his usual display of gentlemanly uber-competence, solves every crime in sight before the break of dawn, some of which will not have made themselves plain to the less perceptive reader, and rights every wrong that needs righting. There is a very surprising climax followed by a series of short scenes in which all the loose ends are tied off.
Why is this book worth your time?
Ngaio Marsh was one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age, we are often told, although I consider her fourth among that quadrumvirate after Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. I had a try at talking about my five most/least favourite of her novels here; I’ve written about her paperback editions in general, from a collector’s standpoint, here, here, and here. And I went into great detail about Hand in Glove (1962) here and Last Ditch here (as part of my 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read series, which may give you all the idea you need of my opinion LOL).
I mention all this to drive traffic to my blog (smiling) but also to bolster the idea that, yes, I’ve read everything Ngaio Marsh ever wrote, multiple times, and given her work a lot of thought over the years. Some of her books are great; some of her books are awful. From my point of view, the ones that are great are generally speaking (a) written in her best period, roughly 1937’s Vintage Murder to 1947’s Final Curtain, (b) set in her native New Zealand, of which there are only four (and one is awful).
Marsh’s best writing is marked by a few general qualities. Since she was deeply engaged in the theatre — I won’t say that her best books are set against the theatrical background, because that is to my mind regrettably not true, but when Marsh grasps the three-act structure of a good play and applies it to her work, it escapes the dreaded Marshian second-act sag as Alleyn interviews all the witnesses one by one. (My friend Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog calls this “wallowing in the Marshes”.) She understood how this structure works and, when she got it right, she got it right. My experience is that she didn’t often get it right but when she did, it’s almost always in a book she wrote between 1937 and 1947 or so. Stella Duffy gets it right here. The sag is cleverly leavened by action that arises organically out of the situation … the interviews still happen but they’re not a deadly slog, as Marsh could sometimes manage.
The other quality that Marsh occasionally got right, and thereby lifted her work from average to extremely good, is more difficult to describe. It is a property of most well-written books, but it’s extremely important in detective fiction, which is highly plot driven. In long-winded terms; first Marsh creates believable characters who do things for believable reasons. Then she makes the things they do further the plot — and since those things are done for believable reasons, the reader can accept that they happened. Little or no suspension of belief is required. If you believe in the people, you believe in the plot, even though the plot is paramount. And then it becomes a very satisfying experience to be surprised at the REAL meaning of some of those actions — because they have become believable for a different, yet believable, reason. This is the sort of thing that happens when you have a well-hidden criminal, as you do in this book. Mr. X does action Y, and it seems as though he did Y because we see that he is the kind of person who would do that. It later turns out that he did Y for different reasons, ones that further the criminal plot; and thus there are new reasons to believe that he did Y. To me it’s one of the most satisfying ways of approaching a detective novel. You see the setting and the characters and the actions, and you think you know what you’ve seen. Then the author shakes the snow globe and, holy moly, all your assumptions were wrong and everything means something else that is also wholly believable. I think in the present volume this is all down to Stella Duffy’s plotting skills, and they are superb.
At her best, between about 1937 and 1947, Marsh’s ear for her own writing was very keen. Perhaps it was merely that she had an editor who held down the worst of her later excesses; perhaps this editor also encouraged her to occasionally step out. Marsh had moments of writing, quite often about the beauties of New Zealand, that were downright lyrical; Colour Scheme (1943), for instance, is filled with descriptions of the countryside and the vegetation and the weather (and the hideously powerful fumaroles) that beautifully set the scene and add delightfully to the atmosphere. Wikipedia appears to assert that the Marshian fragment completed by Stella Duffy was written in 1946 and I can see many reasons why this would be so. Her previous two novels had been set in wartime New Zealand (Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool) and this seems to follow right along; the same location, the same premise, the same framing story of Alleyn writing letters to Fox and Troy. Anyway, I think her writing style at this point was at its most effective height. She was writing elegant prose for intelligent people, with a good ear for dialogue and strong powers of characterization and description.
When I read this volume, I felt immediately that the writing style was actually from that period; Duffy has picked up on that perfectly and really carried it through with great restraint. I gather from an interview that she found words and phrases in Marsh’s oeuvre that had been repeated and tried to use them. Just a great idea. Ordinarily I don’t mind if a continuation writer doesn’t sound so much like the original writer as long as she thinks like the original writer. Here, Duffy has really matched and occasionally exceeded Marsh’s prose at her most intelligent, and yet restrained herself from adding her own voice, for the most part. My attention was caught by a tiny snippet about Miss Farquharson being mocked for a non-NZ accent when ordering a drink — that sounded like Duffy herself. I mention that because it’s the only time I had the thought of Duffy and not Marsh herself writing this.
And now I have come to the part for which Stella Duffy deserves all the praise and then some. If all she got was the first three chapters of this and a page of notes then all I can say is, she’s got a hell of a career ahead of her as a Golden Age continuation writer if nothing else. There is a central twist in this book that is killingly clever as it reverses your expectations; it’s thoroughly foreshadowed and almost obvious once you go back and look to see where you’ve been led astray. Frankly, fooled I was and fooled I was happy to be. I enjoy books like this and they have that true Golden Age quality of story-telling, a delightful reversal that’s a twist in the tale. This is something that Marsh only occasionally reached and there are not many of her novels that are this clever and thus this enjoyable in terms of the criminal plot.
All the characters are believable, and I am happy to say that they are believable in the sense of it being 1946. Duffy doesn’t make the error of ascribing modern-day points of view to characters for whom they are anachronisms. In fact as I read through the book, I kept being reminded of characters from other Marsh novels. Bix and Fox are pretty obvious cognates, rather a “tip of the hat” kind of thing. There are Matrons and nurses and handsome young doctors in The Nursing Home Murder, she knew that background. Pompous Mr. Glossop reminded me of a couple of other characters in other novels (perhaps Death at the Bar), angry little men whose job, plot wise, is to keep people on edge and confrontational. There are other Maori characters in Vintage Murder (this book name checks a Maori doctor we first met in Vintage Murder) and Colour Scheme, a mixture of good and bad like all populations. Evasive Father O’Callaghan made me think of a minor character in Overture to Death; the unpleasant Sister Comfort made me think of a major one. The added fillip in the present volume is that there is just the faintest, most delicate tinge of lesbianism in a comment in Chapter 35 that doubles the meaning of a central relationship in the book … which to my mind is an elegant echo of the faint and delicate tinge of lesbianism in Ngaio Marsh’s own life. (I hasten to add, to my mind it’s just a rumour and probably not true. Not that that’s a bad thing, just that it wasn’t her thing.) Certainly it is in Duffy’s own life; she is married to a woman. So I’m willing to believe she knows what she’s laying down here and, for me, it was precisely the right amount. Another “tip of the hat”.
So many nice things in this book; I could go on and on. The grand revelation of the book is pulled back just the tiniest bit from being truly explosive, but you know, Marsh herself wasn’t very good at coming up with a explosive finish. There’s some great work with the tiniest details of life during food and rubber rationing; just enough to remind the reader when they are. Similarly the niceties of linguistic New Zealand are handled just as cleverly here as Marsh did herself; “I reckon you’d better rattle those dags if you’re going to get a shoofti at it … ” to me is the equivalent of Dead Water‘s “‘Oh, Patrick!’ ‘Don’t say ”’Ow, Pettruck!”'” in its conveyance of accurate everyday NZ usage.
So many things to like, indeed, that I’m astonished to think that, you know, I want more of this. And that truly is a surprise. With Sophie Hannah’s resurrection of Poirot, I merely want that to stop, or for Hannah to work on a project more suited to her considerable talents. This one is done so well that I want Stella Duffy to write a whole new series of Alleyn adventures, based on no Marshian notes at all. I can’t believe I just typed that, but, yeah; I think I would enjoy the hell out of that. In the meantime I’m going to get my hands on a lot of other Stella Duffy mysteries.
A note on editions
Of course there is only one edition of this book at the moment; I got this in electronic format the day it came out, which was yesterday. Yes, I’m a fast reader LOL. So if you want to read this you have the choice of a hugely overpriced electronic version or a reasonably priced first-edition hardcover that still costs twice what the electronic version does. Honestly, this is such a good book, I’m going to go out and get one or even two copies of the first edition and lay them down for the future; I think this book will appreciate.