Thursday, October 8, 2015

Ten Tastes of Dame Ngaio Marsh

As some of you will know, I run a crime writing award named after Dame Ngaio Marsh, one of the four Queens of Crime of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Marsh famously wrote 32 novels featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn, which have been roundly praised for her stylish writing, comic touches, and particular flair for settings and characters with depth. Although Marsh may not have rivalled her fellow Dame Agatha Christie, as a puzzling plot wizard, Marsh is considered to have elevated the detective fiction of the time, bringing in 'rounder, fuller' aspects of the novelist craft to the popular crime genre.

Back in the day she was called "the finest writer in the English language of the pure classical whodunnit", and the New York Times said that "in Ngaio Marsh's ironic and witty hands the mystery novel can be literature". Here on Crime Watch we've reviewed ten of Dame Ngaio's 32 detective novels so far, so today I thought I'd bring those novels and reviews together in one post - ten tastes of Dame Ngaio, if you will. If you are interested in reviewing any of the other 22 of her novels for Crime Watch, please do get in touch.

Ten Tastes of Dame Ngaio

Ngaio Marsh and Inspector Alleyn both made their debuts in this murder mystery which has plenty of the hallmarks of a classic cosy. A group of people gather in an English country estate for a weekend of leisure and fun. While playing a popular parlour game (Murder), a real murder is committed. Inspector Alleyn arrives at the estate following the death, and must sift through all the evidence, accounts, motives and alibis to unmask the culprit.

"This is not Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn's first murder case, although it is Ngaio Marsh's first novel," says Kerrie Smith in her review. "Alleyn is already a seasoned detective, with a reputation for thorough and careful sleuthing. His reputation precedes him."

Australian crime critic Smith notes that Marsh's debut was very British in tone and style, with no hint of Marsh's antipodean origins. Another interesting aspect is the hint of 'the Russian threat', given the novel was written in the early 1930s. But overall Marsh's debut is most important for introducing and establishing the character of Roderick Alleyn, who would be the backbone of a series that ran for half a century, was adapted for radio and television, and remains in print.

"In essence what Marsh does in this first novel is establish some of the characteristics which will become Alleyn's "signature" in subsequent novels," says Smith. "Alleyn does not appear as the other characters expect a detective to be. He is tall, cultured, detached, thorough, and objective. He professes to have a poor memory and keeps a small note book of important facts, with an alphabetical index. We learn that Alleyn is an Oxford man who initially became a diplomat, before turning to policing. He likes to inspect things first hand, and likes to reconstruct events until he gets them right. He may also lay traps for suspects. In A MAN LAY DEAD he decides one of the characters is innocent, and then uses him as his "Watson", not only involving him in some of the sleuthing, but also as a sounding board for his deductions. Thus we see the action often through two sets of eyes, both Alleyn's and the other characters."

You can read Smith's full review here.

As Ngaio Marsh settled into her groove as a mystery novelist, this third Alleyn tale is memorable for a number of reasons. The Times of London credited it as a book which “transformed the detective story” from a mere puzzle to a full-blown and fascinating novel. It was also the only book Marsh wrote alongside another person: in this case H Jellett, a surgeon who provided inside knowledge of British hospitals and was originally credited as a co-author in the first edition. It is also the book a character in an Agatha Christie novel, MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA, is seen reading, and it remains one of Marsh's most popular novels.

Although we're used to seeing plenty of dramas played out in hospitals nowadays (particularly on television), eighty years ago this was much rarer. It's perhaps overlooked now, but Marsh took the classic British murder mystery to some interesting settings. In THE NURSING HOME MURDER, the British Home Secretary goes to hospital with suspected appendicitis, after collapsing while introducing a parliamentary bill relating to terrorists and anarchists, only to end up dead on the operating table minutes after the operation.

When Alleyn arrives on the scene, he uncovers plenty of suspects, from the Home Secretary's wife, to various political foes, and a number of staff at the hospital.

For reviewer Kerrie Smith, THE NURSING HOME MURDER is a precursor to the popular Robin Cook medical thrillers of more recent times, and even being almost eighty years old, she "didn't think there was anything dated about the writing or the plot" of Marsh's third effort. Unlike in A MAN LAY DEAD, where Alleyn seconds a potential suspect as his sounding-board, in this third mystery the refined detective has two 'Watsons': his colleague Inspector Fox, and his friend and journalist Nigel Bathgate.

You can read Kerrie Smith's full review here.

The first of only four Alleyn tales to be set in Dame Ngaio's home country of New Zealand finds the detective taking a train journey through the New Zealand countryside while on vacation, before being pulled into a mystery when a group of travelling actors he's sitting with - the Carolyn Dacres English Comedy Company - get caught up in some dastardly deeds.

It could be said that Ngaio Marsh, now settling in to her career as a mystery writer, brought a little more of herself to VINTAGE MURDER - the book is notable for blending some of Ngaio's national heritage, and a lot of her theatrical heritage (Marsh had been part of a travelling theatre company herself), into the storyline, bringing some interesting texture and insights as the mystery unfolds. For Canadian reviewer Andrea Thompson, it was a very good read, without being her favourite Alleyn tale.  

In VINTAGE MURDER, the beautiful leading lady of the touring company has married the pudgy producer, much to the bewilderment of her lover. But who was it that rigged a huge jeroboam of champagne to kill her husband during a cast party?

"Marsh’s great knowledge of actors and the theatre shows here, with her funny, detailed, and poignant descriptions of all of the actors," says Thompson in her review. "This is the first book in the series set in New Zealand, and one of the main characters, Dr. Rangi Te Pokiha is a Maori. He plays a pivotal role in the plot, and explains a tiki – a Maori fertility symbol – which also has an important part to play. As well, there are a number of scenes where the beautiful New Zealand landscape is vividly described."

Thompson was also intrigued by the discussion in the book of the potential of a new war on the horizon (the book was written in the mid 1930s), and the way Alleyn interacted with the local police.

You can read Andrea Thompson's full review here.

In her seventh Alleyn tale, Dame Ngaio takes us into a different kind of 'closed society' - a trope popular in classic detective fiction. In this case, the insular group is those who orbit their lives through the hoity-toity world of debutante balls and champagne and caviar-catered social functions among London's higher society. Lord Robert "Bunchy" Gospell, an old friend of Chief Inspector Alleyn, is a charming and popular figure on the circuit, but the morning after the season's most glittering ball, he's asphyxiated in a taxi. He'd been Alleyn's eyes and ears as the detective was investigating a blackmail threat, so the death strikes close to home.

I've had people tell me DEATH IN A WHITE TIE is one of their favourite Dame Ngaio books, for a number of reasons: some great examples of witty dialogue that Marsh was renowned for, her evocation of the elegant London high-society set, and the growing insights into Alleyn's personal life. Although Alleyn is a sophisticated and gentlemanly character who isn't particularly demonstrative or garrulous, here we touch on his understated romance with Agatha Troy, as well as his relationship with his mother, and the loss of a friend to murder.

Having a murder victim that is charming, likable and well-humanised is a pleasant, if emotionally jarring, departure from the classic trope of a victim that's either a mere prop killed off early or a dislikable lynchpin that many characters and readers alike don't mind seeing murdered. "I particularly liked the way that death is treated so seriously in the book, and the depth of the loss portrayed so carefully," says Andrea Thompson. 

"Alleyn’s mother helps the investigation, as well as family friend Bunchy, and the relationship between Lady Alleyn and her son is interesting," says Thompson in her Crime Watch review. "This glimpse into a certain set of people in a certain era is also fascinating ... a lifestyle that’s very difficult to imagine these days. Marsh writes beautifully, so it’s simply a pleasure to read her descriptions of anything." 

Thompson says Marsh is extremely entertaining in DEATH IN A WHITE TIE, and also "unflinching in her examination of various characters, from supposedly innocent young ladies to elderly tyrants.

You can read Andrea Thompson's full review here

After delving into elegance and betrayal in London high society in her previous novel, Marsh takes us back to the English countryside and village life in her eighth Alleyn mystery. In OVERTURE TO DEATH the central characters (Alleyn and his offsiders aside) are two gossiping spinsters in the quaint and quiet village of Chipping. 

The two woman make the lives of many in the village miserable, with prying eyes and poisonous mouths, and when one is shot during a charitable amateur theatre production, Alleyn comes to town, only to realise that the murder might be a case of mistaken identity. If he doesn't do something quickly, another killing could ensue.

While this book seems well-liked by readers throughout the decades, it is one in Marsh's ouevre that divides people. Inspector Alleyn doesn't turn up for quite some time, as Marsh lays the groundwork of the various personalities, connections, and life in the village of Chipping. A lot of time is spent with the rather nasty characters of Eleanor Prentice and Idris Campanula, the two gossiping spinsters, so while some readers find this intriguing, others get impatient for the sophisticated hero. 

"If you've ever known any mean, unattractive older ladies, who seem angry and upset whenever other people are happy and fulfilled, and yet who prefer to express their anger by using indirect insults often disguised as compliments or helpful hints, you will have a riot reading OVERTURE TO MURDER," says Andrea Thompson in her Crime Watch review. While some have struggled with the focus on the two woman - one of the few below-average ratings on Good Reads (96% of people liked it) simply says 'Beware. Anti-spinster propaganda!' - our reviewer appreciated what Marsh was doing here. 

"Marsh’s careful writing style, with a strong focus on the inner thoughts, emotions, and motivations of the characters, is perfect here, in describing these two difficult characters, as well as everyone else in the story,: continues Thompson. "In addition to being very revealing and evocative, Marsh’s writing is humorous, and so even though many of the people in the book are quite unpleasant, I didn't find any of the scenes boring.

Overall, Thompson found OVERTURE TO DEATH a "satisfying and entertaining read", and was particularly grateful for the way "Marsh didn't hold back when she wrote". 

You can read Andrea Thompson's full review for Crime Watch here

Considered one of Marsh's most interesting novels, and one that Dame Ngaio herself reportedly thought was perhaps her best-written tale, COLOUR SCHEME - another of the four set in New Zealand - certainly has one of the most memorable murders in Golden Age crime fiction. Maurice Questing was well-disliked: he hated the British exiles, despised New Zealanders, insulted the local Maori, and hindered wartime spies! So when he's lured into a pool of boiling mud and left to die in the volcanic plateau of New Zealand's central North Island, Chief Inspector Alleyn has plenty of suspects to choose from!

Australian critic Karen Chisholm, one our Ngaio Marsh Award judges, recently re-read COLOUR SCHEME after first reading it more than thirty years ago, and found that it still held up well as an enjoyable read. "There's a lovely underlying sense of humour about it, a bit too much stuffed shirt middle class English twit in some of the characters maybe" says Chisholm, before singling out (doubling out?) two aspects of the novel she particularly enjoyed: the setting, and the way Maori characters were included.

The book is set in the Rotorua region of New Zealand, which for those from the United States is perhaps best described as a place akin to Yellowstone National Park, without the bison and bears: bubbling hot pools, thermal geysers, forests, rivers, lakes, and rugged landscapes. "The smell of the sulphur and the bubbling of the mud along with the moonlike look were very evocative," says Chisholm in her review.

Chisholm also appreciated the way that the indigenous Maori were described, their cultures and customs included, without hitting the reader over the head or making a big deal of their inclusion as something special. "They were just there. There was no particular over-statement of their existence, of their involvement or of their interactions. In other words, what I'm trying to say, is that no big deal was made of their presence."

You can read Karen Chisholm's full review here.

Following on from the grisly and unique New Zealand-based murder in COLOUR SCHEME, Marsh unleashed one of the most innovative and memorable ways to deal with a body in classic crime fiction in DIED IN THE WOOL. Another war-time novel, in which Marsh touches on issues surrounding the Second World War, which was still raging in Europe as she wrote - she incorporates aspects, issues, and perspectives on the war climate into the murder mystery plotline.

But first, the unique discovery of the body: One summer evening in 1942, formidable Member of Parliament Florence “Flossie” Rubrick goes to the wool shed on her high country sheep station to rehearse a patriotic speech, and disappears. Three weeks later, she’s found – dead, wrapped inside a bale of wool at an auction.

Chief Inspector Alleyn, in New Zealand on war security matters, comes to the high country property more than a year later, after Rubrick’s husband has also passed away, and tries to piece together what happened to the polarising MP, based on the testimonies of several acquaintances. At the same time, concerns are raised about the top-secret security work being carried out by two young men – have the blueprints for a new anti-aircraft device been leaked?

In effect, Marsh transported the classic British ‘country house’ murder mystery, with its closed environment and small amount of characters (all of whom with a motive for killing the victim), into a rural New Zealand war-time setting. But she also does a few things differently that make DIED IN THE WOOL stand out. Alleyn arrives a year after the murder, so can’t rely on clues and observations usually available to detectives – instead he has to weigh differing recollections of the residents (each has its own chapter, eg “According to Terence Lynne”). This device gave Marsh a different structure and investigative method, and also the opportunity to ‘voice’ varying views about what was going on during the war, through her characters.

DIED IN THE WOOL again evidences that Marsh’s plots weren’t as intricate as Christie’s puzzles, but she was the superior writer when it came to setting, description, and giving her characters depth and layers. Compared to today’s crime novels, the pace is somewhat languid, and at times, the language used dates the book, but decades after it was published, DIED IN THE WOOL remains an absorbing, enjoyable read.

For her 27th Alleyn tale, Dame Ngaio returned to the classic 'group of people gathered for a vacation at a manor estate' set-up of her debut, forty years before. This time, it's Christmas, and the story starts with Troy, by now Roderick Alleyn's wife, invited to Hilary Bill-Tasman's estate to paint the man and view the Druid Christmas pageant.

Inspector Alleyn isn't at the estate for the festivities - which Troy enjoys alongside the classic crowd of eccentric guests - but arrives soon after, having returned from Australia, when one of the pageant's players mysteriously disappears into the snowy night. An interesting twist - all of the hired help at the estate are convicted murderers on parole from the nearby prison. Did one of them have something to do with this Christmas mystery of the disappearing Druid?

"TIED UP IN TINSEL was among the last of Dame Ngaio Marsh's (1895-1982) mysteries," notes reviewer Kerrie Smith, "although she continued to publish another five titles, right up to her death. It reflects not only her gift for clever plotting but also has a very theatrical feel to it. Characteristically, an early page displays a very useful cast of characters, and the whole story feels as if it could easily be dramatised. There are lots of places that have the reader grasping at straws in an attempt to solve the murder before Alleyn does."

Overall, Smith felt that even as Marsh approached 80 years old, TIED UP IN TINSEL showed the Grande Dame still "had not lost her ability to write a good yarn". You can read Kerrie Smith's full review here.

Dame Ngaio published this penultimate Alleyn novel partway through her ninth decade; it is the fourth and final of her tales to be set in New Zealand. Alongside the usual cast of intriguing, well-drawn characters and Marsh's gift for humour and setting, there are some different touches to this murder mystery, as Marsh incorporated issues that would become prevalent in our celebrity-obsessed culture in the decades since.

Famous soprano Isabella Sommita is at her wits end, having been hounded by a paparazzo, who continues to publish unflattering photos of her in newspapers, so her rich boyfriend has taken her on holiday to an island in New Zealand to rest and relax. She plans to perform an aria to her lover and a group of celebrities gathered on the island.

The Alleyns are also in attendance: Troy has been invited to the island retreat to paint a portrait of Isabella, while Inspector Alleyn is separately invited to help try to put a stop to the pesky paparazzo. But then the diva winds up dead, with a photo on her body, and Alleyn has a murder to solve. Meanwhile a storm rages, trapping all the celebrities and others on the island with the murderer...

Reviewer Sarah Plant (nee Gumbley), found PHOTO FINISH to be "simply a wonderful story", noting that the book has a very 'play-like' feel to it (unsurprisingly), and that it was the kind of book she wanted to finish in one go, and kept her guessing until the last moment. You can read Sarah's full review here.

The tenth and final Ngaio Marsh tale we'll look at here today was also her very final story, the 32nd Inspector Alleyn book (there were also a number of short stories), published in the year of Dame Ngaio's death, thirty three years ago. The lass from Christchurch was the final member of the Queens of Crime quartet to leave us (Sayers died in 1957, Allingham in 1966, and Agatha Christie in 1976).

Fittingly, Marsh finished in the theatre. And not just any old am-dram theatre production, but Shakespeare, one of her true loves (she'd acted as Hamlet in her earlier days, and directed Shakespearean plays). Performed by renowned actors in a top London production.

From the blurb: "Four murders. Three witches. A fiendish lady. A homicidal husband. A ghost. No wonder "Macbeth "is considered such bad luck by theatre people that they won't mention its name out loud. But the new London production of "the Scottish play" promises to be a smash until gruesome pranks begin plaguing rehearsals. And when the last act ends in real-life tragedy, Chief Superintendent Alleyn takes center stage-uncovering a heartbreaking secret, murderous jealousy, and a dark, desperate reason for 'murder for foul'."

Dame Ngaio was approaching 90 when this final novel was published, but like the great PD James (Baroness James of Holland Park, who was a big fan of Ngaio Marsh), even at an advanced age she still managed to craft an absorbing, page-turning tale that was well worth reading.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Marsh didn't mind having a murder occur much later in a book, rather than used as a kickstart for the plot, and that is once again on show in LIGHT THICKENS (sold as DEATH AT THE DOLPHIN in the United States). Instead, she sets the scene through character and setting, laying the groundwork. As Sarah Plant said in her review for Crime Watch, "By the time I was halfway through the story and no murder had been committed, I was starting to wonder if one was going to happen in time to be solved before the end of the book. But the tension was certainly in the air, and something terrible seemed inevitable. In the end, the killer wasn't who I had been so certain it would be. I got a surprise when it was revealed in the last few pages. But I suppose that’s how it should be. Marsh is too good to ever be predictable."

And in a nice, final nod to her homeland, there is a Kiwi character in this final book, who even performs a haka. You can read Sarah's full review of LIGHT THICKENS here.

So there we go - ten tastes of Dame Ngaio Marsh's renowned books, spanning her debut through to her finale, including all four novels set in New Zealand, and a nice selection of others. Thank you to Kerrie Smith, Karen Chisholm, Andrea Thompson, and Sarah Plant for providing reviews to Crime Watch over the years. If any readers are interested in reviewing one of the other 22 Alleyn novels for Crime Watch, please get in touch. In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts about Dame Ngaio in the comments section below. 

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