Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Crime Fiction Alphabet - A is for A MAN LAY DEAD

As I noted yesterday, my fellow Anzac and book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has created a great series where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, all linking to each other.
Having been a bit slow on the uptake I missed "A" last week, but Kerrie has been kind enough to leave open that first week's letter as well, for the tardy amongst us.

During the initial running of letter "A", my fellow book bloggers linked posts on A IS FOR ALIBI by MWA Grand Master Sue Grafton (Kerrie herself), AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Dame Agatha Christie (Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist), ABSOLUTION by Caro Ramsay (Bernadette at Reactions to Reading), A FATAL WALTZ by Tasha Alexander (Marg at Reading Adventures), ALL MORTAL FLESH by Julia Spencer-Fleming (RT at Novels, Stories and More), and HUNT by A. Alvarez (Maxine at Petrona).

Since I'm probably tabbed as the Kiwi crime writing perspective, I will try to sprinkle my alphabet-inspired posts over the coming weeks with a fair number of Kiwi crime/thriller-related topics.

So since we're beginning at the start, alphabet-wise, I might as well kick things off with the book that started the career of New Zealand's own Queen of Crime, Dame Ngaio Marsh.
Published in 1934 by Collins, A MAN LAY DEAD introduced Marsh and her British CID detective Roderick Alleyn to the crime fiction world, and sparked a rich fifty-year career spanning 32 novels that saw Marsh rise to the very the pinnacle of detective fiction (including being awarded the prestigious Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America in 1978). Like many of her books, A MAN LAY DEAD has remained in print for decades, and in fact HarperCollins UK has recently begun releasing celebratory (and very affordable) 3-book sets of Marsh's books to honour the Diamond anniversay of the Marsh Million in 1949. You can read more about the first set, which was released last month and contains A MAN LAY DEAD, here.

Although Marsh was a NZ writer, she wrote very much in the classic 'British' cosy mystery style of the time. Her detective was (very) British, the vast majority of her settings were British, and although she put small touches of New Zealand into some books (e.g. the four set in NZ, and the colonial concerns voiced mildly in others), reading A MAN LAY DEAD is very much like reading other well-written British mysteries of the era.

The framework of the plot of AS A MAN LAY DEAD is a classic country house party murder mystery, although Marsh brings her own (then) fresh touches. Sir Hubert Handesley's extravagant weekend house-parties are deservedly famous for his exciting Murder Game. But when the lights go up this time, there is a real corpse with a real dagger in the back.

The guests include Sir Hubert's niece (Angela North), Charles Rankin (a 46 or 47 year old man about town), Nigel Bathgate (Charles's cousin and a gossip reporter), Rosamund Grant, and Mr and Mrs Arthur Wilde. Also in attendance are an art expert and a Russian butler. All seven suspects have skilful alibis - so seasoned (if slightly unusual) Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn has to figure out whodunit.

Alleyn seems an unusual police detective to the party guests/suspects, with his detached and cultured manner. An Oxford man and former diplomat, he keeps a small alphabeticised notebook of key facts and observations, and likes to inspect things first hand to reconstruct events. In A MAN LAY DEAD he decides one of the characters is innocent, and then uses him as his "Watson", an investigative assistant and sounding board - so the reader sees the action through to sets of eyes, and in some ways this debut is less about Alleyn than some of the later Marsh books.

Interestingly when the novel was adapted for the British television series The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, the plot was changed so that Agatha Troy (who becomes Alleyn's wife in later novels) appears, replacing another key character.

Marsh is one of the best exponents of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and the classic British cosy mystery. Even today her stories stand up fairly well - although the setting and some events/language/concerns etc date them, the plots and characters remain interesting, and AS A MAN LAY DEAD, like the other Marsh titles, is a very enjoyable read.


  1. Craig,
    Thank you so much for profiling both Dame Marsh and A Man Lay Dying.. As you say, it launched such a distinguished career. As I read your post, I thought of an Agatha Christie novel, Dead Man's Folly. In that novel, too, a Murder Hunt (this time, though, a Scavanger Hunt), goes horribly wrong when the "victim" is actually murdererd. Interesting parallel...

  2. I think the whole country house, upper class people, isolated from the city, parlour game gone wrong framework was a popular staple of that age of detective fiction.

    Marsh's next book involved a stage murder that became a real one - so there was certainly a fondness for those 'games/plays gone wrong' type scenarios at that time...

  3. A fine post about Ngaio Marsh, and as you say, her setting and characters are more British than the British :D