Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Review of PHOTO FINISH by Ngaio Marsh

In the latest of what will become a much more frequent occurrence in the coming months, today we have another great 'guest review' on Crime Watch. If you would like to contribute such a review, please let me know.

Sarah Gumbley (pictured above right) is an Auckland based book reviewer, who reads a lot of literary fiction, biographies, and other non-fiction works, as well as enjoying some crime and thriler fiction. She has also reviewed for Good Reading, NZLawyer, and Scoop Review of Books in the past.

With the inaugural presentation of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel looming, today Sarah reviews PHOTO FINISH by Ngaio Marsh - one of only four of the 32 Inspector Alleyn novels the doyen of New Zealand detective fiction wrote to actually take place in her home country of New Zealand, and her second to last novel of her 48-year publishing career.

By Ngaio Marsh (originally published by Collins, 1980)
Reviewed by Sarah Gumbley

With the first Ngaio Marsh Awards being held this month in Christchurch, it seemed a perfect time to revisit Marsh’s work, and her novel, Photo-Finish, a good place to start. One of the few tales to be set in New Zealand, Photo-Finish (part of the Inspector Alleyn mysteries) was originally published thirty years ago, but was reprinted as part of the Diamond Anniversary Collection last year.

Britain’s Chief Superintendent, Inspector Roderick Alleyn and his wife, Troy, an artist, both receive invitations from Montague Reece to stay at his new home, a lavish island retreat, on Lake Waihoe, New Zealand. Reece invites them with a request for each. It is hoped that during the stay, Troy will paint a portrait of the world-famous opera singer, Isabella Sommita, who will also be at the lodge. Alleyn, he requests, may help them solve a mystery of a photographer who has been harassing Isabella recently, taunting her with his unflattering images published in all the newspapers. They want to know who he is, and how to stop him.

When the Alleyns arrive at the house, all attention is focused on the performance to be held on the island in a few days. Isabella, the rotund star, will be singing a piece written especially for her by her protégé and lover, the young and handsome Rupert Bartholomew. The play is said to be terrible, but Isabella, so in love with the writer, insists it is a masterpiece. In any case, the whos-who of New Zealand theatre have all been invited already to see it on the island.

But in the evening after the performance, Madame Sommita is brutally murdered. The murder occurs just as a huge storm brews, meaning they’re all trapped on the island… along with the murderer. So the Inspector begins to investigate, at least until the New Zealand police can be contacted and brought in. It’s a tricky case to solve though as Isabella had plenty of enemies: there’s the paparazzi photograher, there’s her suspicious Italian mafia foes and then there’s the servants and other members of the household, who are all-too-aware of just how difficult she can be.

As is her style, Photo-Finish has a ‘play-like’ feel to it. The first page lists the ‘cast of characters’ and the setting is based on a single ‘stage’, being the island. Theatre was Marsh’s foremost passion (her ‘damery’ was largely awarded for her work in reviving New Zealand’s ailing theatre scene) so it is no wonder this all comes through. But as is the case with all her tales, it is simply a wonderful story. The kind that you want to finish in one go, that keeps you guessing until the last moment. But what else would you expect from Marsh? After all, she is one of the ‘crime queens’ of the English language.


As Sarah mentioned, you can now purchase PHOTO FINISH as part of a three book set (along with LIGHT THICKENS, the final Alleyn tale, and BLACK BEECH AND HONEYDEW, Dame Ngaio's autobiography) of reissued Marsh classics, that were released late last year and early this year, in celebration of both 75 years since the first Alleyn tale, and sixty years since the 'Marsh Million', when I understand Marsh became one of only four authors of the time to have one million of her novels released onto the market in a single day.

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