NGAIO MARSH: The Third Queen of Crime

The Tuesday Night Bloggers group was founded by Curtis Evans with the purpose of exploring a different Golden Age mystery writer each month. So far, I have had it easy! We started with Christie – and everyone knows something about her! Next came Ellery Queen. So far, so good: after Christie, I think I know Queen’s work the best. Now, however, I’m about to venture into tougher territory, which means my output must decline, both in quantity and in the relative worth of what I have to say. If at any point you find me meandering a bit about some of these authors, I strongly urge you check out my knowledgeable colleagues. This month, Moira Redmond will be moderating the entries over at her excellent blog, Clothes in Books, so you will find all the links over at her place: http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/

During the Golden Age, four women writers were acknowledged for their achievements with the title “The Queens of Crime”: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. Now, I’m not here to argue whether or not any of these ladies deserved that title, as all of them were major contributors to the field. Frankly, though, I confess that I can’t get into Sayers. Don’t ask me why I don’t much like Peter Wimsey or the plots, but their charms have eluded me. As for Allingham, I read a few of the Campion books, enjoyed them to some degree and promptly forgot them.

dorothysayers             Unknown                                     Dorothy Sayers                                                 Marjory Allingham

Anyone with a passing acquaintance knows about my powerful attachment to Agatha Christie. And then there’s Ngaio Marsh. My relationship with Marsh goes something like this: I started reading Christie at the age of 11. Within a couple of years, I had added Ellery Queen to the mix and would alternate (sort of) between the two authors. Somehow, John Dickson Carr got into the mix, and I gobbled him up as well. Along with Christianna Brand (who I discovered much later), these writers constitute my top favorites; they are my “Four Queens of Crime.”

By the mid-1970’s, my well of new Christies and Queens had run dry, and since I only read the Gideon Fell novels at that time, I was running out of Carr books as well. (The good news here is that, now that I am a real grown-up, I can revisit Carr and read the Sir Henry Merrivale books, which most fans seem to prefer to the Fell ones!) I needed an author, preferably a prolific one, to fuel my mystery-loving fire. At that time, Ngaio Marsh filled a shelf in every bookstore. I picked up my first one, got hooked, and read them all.

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But here’s the thing: I don’t remember much about them at all. And I can’t understand that! Because I certainly enjoyed them enough to pick up one after another and read them. They fulfilled much of what I love about a classic mystery: the paperbacks included a cast of characters in the front to which I could refer, some novels contained maps of rooms and houses, and they were very much of the Golden Age style. I remember that Marsh tended to follow a pattern: the introductory section (always my favorite part) which set the scene, introduced the characters, and set up the conflicts up to and including the murder. Next came the investigation where Inspector Roderick Alleyn, Marsh’s gentleman sleuth, took center stage of the book. Finally, the denouement would occur, and the truth would be revealed.

Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh and Nathaniel Parker as Thomas Lynley

I remember liking Roderick Alleyn. In the early novels, he was a bit of a rake, but after meeting painter Agatha Troy in his sixth adventure, Artists in Crime (1938), he pursued and won her and became a family man. It could be argued that he is the predecessor of both Adam Dalgliesh, P.D. James’ gentleman-poet detective, and Thomas Lynley, Elizabeth George’s upperclass police inspector, except that both James and George focused way more page time on their sleuths’ tortured personal lives. For Alleyn, the focus remained not on his home life but on each case he undertook with his devoted assistant, “Br’er” Fox. (Perhaps all three of these sleuths owe something to Lord Peter Wimsey, but his character is so, er, “Wimsey-cal” that he seems to be an entity unto himself.)

So here are ten things that come to mind when I think about Ngaio Marsh, which might shed light on my vague ambivalence about her.

1) I can’t remember the first one I read. I remember my first Christie (And Then There Were None), my first Queen (The Greek Coffin Mystery) and my first Carr (The Arabian Nights Mystery). The Christie and Queen books are first-rate examples of their work, and if the Arabian Nights isn’t Carr’s best, its structure is pure fun, as three different narrators fill us in on what happened, a la Scheherazade. Yet I cannot remember my first Marsh, for reasons that might become clearer next . . .

2) Of the four writers, Marsh’s plotting was the least experimental, least surprising, least dazzling . . . and I do love to be dazzled! The good news is that Marsh had fewer pure dogs than the other three. There was no So Many Steps to Death, no The Last Woman in His Life, no Dark of the Moon. I think it would be rare for a reader to come out of a Marsh novel going, “Oh dear, she had a bad time of it there . . . “ But then I can’t think of a plot that stands out above the rest. Her solutions were, for the most part satisfying, but they were rarely surprising in any way. None of her books became a standout mystery classic, like Roger Ackroyd or The Three Coffins or Calamity Town. And the thing is, I’ll bet many fans would argue with me over the three titles I just listed, which is something you can do about Christie, Queen or Carr since so many of their books are classics. I’m not sure anyone could do that about Marsh, even if a real Marsh fan had a number of favorites.

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3) One way that Marsh did stand out from the other three is that she set many of her books in the world of the theatre, a world I know and love very much. From her second novel, Enter a Murderer (1935), Marsh, whose life passion was the theatre, recognized how well the inherent theatricality of actors, directors and playwrights accommodated murder. I think ten of her thirty-two novels center around an actor or the theatre, up to and including her last novel, Light Thickens (1982).

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4) Marsh was born in New Zealand, and she used this to her advantage. Some of her best titles took place in her homeland (Colour Scheme (1943), Died in the Wool (1945)) or featured a New Zealander floundering in England (Surfeit of Lampreys (1941)).

OvertureToDeath

 

5) Marsh may not have been as clever a plotter as Christie, but she was a stronger writer. I have decided to re-read and review in a subsequent entry what I vaguely remember was one of my favorite Marsh novels, Overture to Death (1939). So far, it is delightful. Here is a description of the victim, a woman with the marvelous name of Idris Campanula: “She was a large arrogant spinster with a firm bust, a high-colored complexion, course gray hair, and enormous bony hands. Her clothes were hideous but expensive, for Miss Campanula was extremely wealthy. She was supposed to be Eleanor Prentice’s great friend. Their alliance was based on mutual antipathies and interests. Each adored scandal and each cloaked her passion in a mantle of conscious rectitude. Neither trusted the other an inch, but there was no doubt that they enjoyed each other’s company.”

This is all gold, very informative and very funny. Christie was never this informative and rarely this funny. Dialogue, not description, was her forte.

6) Here’s a good place to address the elephant in the room: Marsh had serious trouble with the middles of her books. I think even her biggest fans would have to concede that the reliance on one interview after another, with not much else happening, could grow rather tiresome. This was especially difficult after an excellent opening, like the one in Dead Water (1964.) The image of a dimwitted village boy running from bullies because of his warty hands, then plunging those hands into the magical, healing waters of a local spring, is gripping. Then you have to read chapter after chapter of routine questioning, and the excitement palls.

KnoxCommandments

7) All four of the authors mentioned above broke Knox’s Commandments (see above) and/or Van Dine’s rules of detective writing. That’s fine with me, as some of these rules were ridiculously limiting. However, Marsh’s deviations were more likely to justify the existence of these very rules. Knox and Van dine both advocated a sensible avoidance of certain clichés or cheats, such as murder involving twins or murder where a minor servant is revealed to be the killer. On the occasions where Marsh embraced these clichés, the results were disappointing.

8) Her name is freaking great! Ngaio (pronounced “Nye oh”) is fun to say! In fact, all four of these authors have great names. I figure I haven’t written a book yet because I don’t have a great author name. Yet!

9) I think it’s telling that I promised to say ten things about Ngaio Marsh, and I am running out of ideas. Perhaps after finishing Overture to Death, I will have more to say later this month.

10) Finally, in a complete change of subject, I have decided to try joining Bev Hankin’s Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt. I don’t have a shot of winning, but it sounds like a great group project to take part in. Here’s a link to Bev’s instructions in case you want to join:

Given my reading proclivities these days, I will take part in the Golden Age Hunt. At least, some interesting book covers are going to come my way.

I also have decided to join in on the celebration of crime fiction of 1941 going on all through December over at Past Offences. My plan is to review two of my favorite crime films, The Maltese Falcon and I Wake Up Screaming, and if I have time, Helen McCloy’s The Deadly Truth.

 

 

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12 thoughts on “NGAIO MARSH: The Third Queen of Crime

  1. You definitely hit the nail on the head with saying that none of Marsh’s plots are dazzling and that the middles aren’t always that great. Her setting up of the scene and characters are usually good though, which may be because of her artist background.

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      1. You would think with Ngaio Marsh’s expertise of and involvement in the theatre she wouldn’t have had the issues that she did with the “muddy middle”. But you can still write routine questioning scenes and make them interesting, exciting and intriguing and I don’t know if it had to do with Ngaio Marsh being a stronger writer that had the impact of not writing quite an exciting middle as Agatha Christie. I’m sure in her middles another murder occurred but was it written in such a way to have you keep reading on? Brad, what would you have liked to have seen in Ngaio Marsh’s middles to have created more excitement? It’s a shame to read such an opening like Dead Water, only to slog through the middle like that.

        Currently, I’m starting the new year reading Singing In The Shrouds, a book that I attempted reading many years ago and I couldn’t get through it so I’m going to start again 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Really enjoyed that, Brad, great start to the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ look at Marsh. And yes you make some great points – those soggy middles, and the fact that there aren’t obvious classic favourite titles… Look forward to more perceptions from you and the others.

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  3. Brad: I know what you mean about gobbling up Marsh and then not being able to remember much about most of her stories. There are two (Death in a White Tie and Death at the Bar) that I’ve always been able to remember details about–but the res? Not a chance. But, like you, I loved her back when I was looking for something beyond Christie. Great opening post for our Month of Marsh!

    Oh…and thanks for joining in on the Vintage Scavenger Hunt! I hope you have fun with it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Bev. Is White Tie the one about Bunchy? I think I liked that one, too. And Death at the Bar is about darts? Oh, well, too much other stuff to read to revisit, (Unless, of course, the covers help me at bingo!) 🙂

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  4. Sbrn (what IS your name?) – Marsh excelled at intriguing her characters with witty dialogue and description. The opening meeting of the fete committee in An Overture to Murder is proof of that. I fear that a lot of the problem with the middle is that, by necessity, it focuses on Inspector Alleyn, who is something of a stick in the personality department. Once in a while there was a second murder, but even Christie admitted those were often about keeping readers’ interest from flagging! I think that, if you compare them side by side, you find that both offered great hooks, Christie’s overall plot schemes were superior, along with her ability to surprise and obfuscate, while Marsh excelled at prose and setting. Ultimately, in a mystery, plot and surprise win out every time.

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    1. My name is Brian. I found this blog a few months back and I’ve been reading and checking it out but it was last night I decided to comment and offer my assessments and opinions.

      I noticed in a lot of modern mysteries, writers boast of being “realistic” but the downside to it is the lack of an ingenious plot and solution. Many look down on the Golden Age mysteries because while the plot and solutions are ingenious, many wonder if the murders are convincing — is it possible, is it realistic? I would rather read a mystery from the Golden Age with an unrealistic, slightly implausible solution than these modern mysteries with their dull plots and solutions that doesn’t surprise or have a big payoff at the end.

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