Saturday, February 27, 2016


DEAD WATER by Ngaio Marsh (1964)

Reviewed by Kate Jackson

A week of death threats at a faith-healing resort ends in murder. Inspector Alleyn is then faced with the most challenging case of his career. What makes matters worse is the fact that one of the suspects is his oldest friend.

DEAD WATER begins on a small Cornish island near a fishing village called Portcarrow. Epileptic young boy Wally Trehern seems to magically lose the warts on his hands after encountering a green lady at a spring on the island. The inhabitants of both the island and the village react in different ways. The majority are unsurprisingly skeptical. Local pub owner Major Keith Barrimore is interested in the commercial value such a tale could have. Only Elspeth Cost believes wholeheartedly in the story and even claims her asthma has been cured by doing a similar thing.

The story then jumps two years ahead and a whole tourist industry has been created around these supposedly miraculous falls. Emily Pride plans to change this though, and having inherited the island, is keen to put a stop to all commercial exploitation of the spring. Not only is she doubtful about the claims, she is also annoyed that such enterprises persuade sick people to not seek proper medical advice - in fact a friend of hers died from such a situation. Emily Pride was Inspector Alleyn's French tutor, and she calls him in because of threatening letters she has received. Not that these letters stop her from making a visit to the island…

Emily's worst fears about the island are proven correct as Wally’s parents exploit him for money and there is even a gift shop run by Elspeth which sells cheap plastic statues of the green lady. Emily receives a lukewarm welcome from most of the locals, who see her plans as the end of their financial prosperity. This animosity to Emily’s plans is expressed in different ways by different characters, verbal and physical, such as stone throwing, anonymous phone calls, unpleasant effigies, and trip wires - the latter causes Inspector Alleyn sufficient concern to arrive on the scene in person.

One of the things which made this a better read than some of Marsh’s other novels is the interjection of humour. This is particularly showcased in the anniversary festival Elspeth Cost organises at the spring to celebrate the appearance of the green lady. This part of the story is described like the opening night of a play, which is humorously incongruous. Moreover, the whole festival is embarrassingly funny for the readers and characters watching the performance alike, culminating in everyone rushing for cover as a storm drenches them all.

However, it is the day after this festival, when Inspector Alleyn hopes to leave with Emily, that the body of Elspeth Cost is discovered. A key question for Alleyn is whether she was actually the intended victim or was she mistaken for Emily Pride? Was the killer also the person who enacted the threats against Emily earlier in the story? Or is there another reason why someone might want Elspeth dead? As is common in Golden Age-styled detective novels, many of the characters happened to be in vicinity of the place where the murder occurred. But which one was there with murderous intentions? The revelation scene at the end of the novel is fairly dramatic involving a storm and Inspector Alleyn in peril. On the whole I think the investigation by Alleyn is less boring than it can be, although the ending of the book massively relied on the killer panicking. The mystery itself was solid enough, but for inexplicable reasons I just didn’t find the story as gripping or as exciting as I would have liked.

The characterisation in the novel was strong overall, (though Wally’s mother was perhaps a little two-dimensional, coming across as an intoxicated witch from Macbeth with all her cackling). In particular I thought there were moments where Marsh succinctly managed to sum a character up, such as with the Major who looked like ‘an illustration from an Edwardian sporting journal’. Moreover, her character descriptions are also utile in demonstrating personality and group dynamics such as when Emily is said to look 'like some Burmese female deity', with the implication being that she is the character who has the most power. This is reinforced when it is said that ‘at five o clock she caused tea to be brought to her’, as I felt the verb ‘caused’ was an unusual choice, as it makes her come across as someone so powerful that she can get tea brought to her without asking. Although it is interesting that after the murder her powerful aura is dissipated, as she feels guilty that Elspeth might have been killed because of her.

On a final note the idea of the green lady intrigued me, so after a small internet search later, it seems that there are many historical sights in England, but most significantly in Crathes Castle Scotland, who seem to have a green lady story attached to them. Examples include Ashintully Castle, Crathes Castle, Knock Castle, Prideaux Place and Barony of Ladyland where there is a smuggler’s glen. This ‘is said to be the haunt of the ghost of a Green Lady, wearing an emerald dress and is said to rise from the depths and glide across the dark waters of the deep pool at the foot of the main waterfall’ (Wikipedia). I felt this example fitted the closest to Marsh’s novel, though of course in her story, supernatural explanations are only supported by characters who tend to come across as ridiculous.

3.75 stars out of 5.

Kate Jackson is a English teacher and tutor from northern England. This is a lightly edited version of a review first published on Kate's excellent blog Cross Examining Crime. You can follow Kate on Twitter: @ArmchairSleuth

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