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September 24, 2007

Re-reading the classics: Dame Ngaio Marsh

Posted by Helen Szamuely

Julian Symons maintains in his overview of detective and crime fiction, Bloody Murder, that Ngaio Marsh could have gone beyond detective story writing as several of her books are certainly full of cleverly observed social pictures, particularly if she was writing about the theatre, a milieu she knew extremely well. But, he says (and I can almost imagine him pursing his lips) she preferred to write detective stories to writing stories with some detective content. Her excuse was that this is what she did best. In other words, she echoed Jane Austen's courteous response to the George IV's librarian.

Other writers, such as Susan Howatch, have sung her praises, pointing to the strong influence she has had on successors both within and outside the detective genre. Undoubtedly, P. D. James's Adam Dalgliesh is a modern day version of Roderick Alleyn, though he comes from the upper middle class rather than the lower reaches of the upper class. Alleyn himself was, in the first place, an imitation of Lord Peter Wimsey.

Ngaio Marsh is known vaguely as one of the grandes dames of crime and is often compared favourably with Agatha Christie, who, nevertheless, remains the one undoubtedly successful writer with a fan club that grows year in, year out, whereas Ngaio Marsh is rarely read except by other practitioners and real fanatics of the detective story. For a long time that is how she stayed in my mind - a goodish writer but an impossible snob and much given to complicated plots as well as social descriptions.

Recently I re-read a number of her novels and found myself pleasantly surprised. In the first place Dame Ngaio was an excellent writer - clear, subtle, ironic and mercifully free of sentimentality. The snobbery that I recalled from earlier readings was there but it was tempered by frequent clear analysis either by the writer or by her character, particularly Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn, who eventually became Chief Superintendent.

Marsh was known for her ability to write about the theatre and the people therein, having been herself an actor, a director, a producer and having received her damehood for her services to the theatre in New Zealand. But she is good at conjuring up other pictures: Martyn Tarne, the New Zealand actress on her uppers in Opening Night almost hallucinating from hunger and exhaustion; the retired diplomat in Black as He is Painted, dissatisfied with his future but still trying to resist the house he has fallen in love with and the little stray cat who is wooing him determinedly (he happily succumbs to both); Peregrine Jay's terror and disgust as he nearly drowns in filthy water in the bombed out theatre in Death at the Dolphin; even the horrors of the Season in Death in White Tie.

On the strength of the last named novel, one of Marsh's best admittedly, the American editor of her collected short stories, Douglas G. Greene, expressed the opinion that:

[a]s a New Zealander, Ngaio Marsh did not think - as Christie sometimes did - that the English class structure was the best of all possible worlds.
This is simply because the novel makes it clear that the Season was a nasty, cruel exercise and there is a moment at which Alleyn's friend, part-time investigator and eventual murder victim, Lord Robert (Bunchy) Gospell, has a sudden insight into the real characters of the people around him, an insight, one imagines he has always had but preferred to keep at the back of his mind.

This is an inadequate statement about both Christie and Marsh. Whether the former did actually think that the British class system was the best of all possible worlds is unproven. She certainly never wrote a novel about the Season nor did she have quite so many charming or dotty aristos scattered through her novels. In fact, she had none, sharing the solid English middle class suspicion of the gentry. Christie's understanding of the post-War period led her to present a considerably more accurate picture, as servants turned into foreign refugee maids, then became daily cleaning women and au pairs. Marsh, on the other hand, produced novels after the Second World War in which great houses still had servants and there were villagers to tug forelocks. Much of that was pure ignorance. She lived in New Zealand and merely visited Britain, clearly keeping a somewhat outdated view of the country in her mind.

The best post-War books are those which happen within a theatre - Opening Night and Death at the Dolphin - or in somewhat unusual surroundings - A Clutch of Constables and When in Rome. The first of these involve Troy Alleyn, the Chief Inspector's artist wife going on a river cruise in Suffolk and the second one has Alleyn joining a cultural guided tour round Rome. They and most of the other books of the period revolve round Alleyn's growing professional preoccupation with international drug running.

I had not remembered one fascinating aspect of Marsh's writing. She was capable of conveying talent and even greatness. Somehow one never quite believes in P. D. James's Commander Adam Dalgliesh as a poet but there can be no doubt that Agatha Troy, Alleyn's wife, is a superb artist. One can almost see her paintings and appreciate the talent though all one gets is the odd phrase that describes Troy at work or the semi-finished product. The only novel in which the descriptions of Troy's work go completely awry is the late Black as He is Painted in which she seems to have been seduced by pomp and exoticism.

Similarly, the reader can appreciate talented actors (whom Dame Ngaio does not seem to have liked as a breed), playwrights and producers. Peregrine Jay's play about Shakespeare, his son, his son's gloves and the feline Dark Lady in Death at the Dolphin makes one sigh with regret that it does not exist outside the novel. On the whole, I find it easier to pass the sub-Ibsenish symbolism of "Thus To Revisit" in Opening Night or its predecessor in the slightly melodramatic short story I Can Find My Way Out. But the feeling of theatrical talent is there even if the play sounds like something to be avoided.

The real problem, in some ways, remains Roderick Alleyn, though the fact that a number of the novels have extremely silly plots does not help one to appreciate Ngaio Marsh. Alleyn makes his first appearance in 1934 in A Man Lay Dead, a book that Marsh herself, quite correctly, disliked later on. It is truly bad. The plot is remarkably weak and the murder method completely incredible.

Alleyn, at this stage a Chief Inspector, is modelled on Lord Peter Wimsey and behaves in an infuriatingly and completely improbably facetious manner. To be fair, Nigel Bathgate, a journalist and a Watson-type figure in several numbers, does tell him to shut up. In subsequent novels, Inspector Fox, who appears for the first time in the second one Enter a Murderer, tells Alleyn to "come off it, sir" and Troy actually instructs him not to be so damn facetious, even before they are married. So Alleyn is never treated with the sort of reverence that Lord Peter is throughout the novels.

He has a family - a delightful mother who drips with charm, a brother (mostly off-stage) who is an ass and a successful diplomat, a niece in one novel, a cousin in another, the odd reference to other nephews in a third. He knows everybody in society and is welcome at the most unlikely events. A good deal of this disappears as he marries Troy, goes off to catch spies during the war, has a son and becomes seriously involved in chasing drug barons, though his aristocratic connections crop up from time to time.

He also discards his would-be Watson, the journalist Nigel Bathgate, whose final brief appearance is in uniform in the immediately post-war Final Curtain.

Alleyn (named after the Elizabethan actor and founder of Dulwich College, Ned Alleyn), does actually develop through the novels though, as ever, one has to take the time span and the lack of promotion among his colleagues with a very large dose of salt. Let me put it this way - he becomes considerably more bearable, as if greater responsibility, marriage and fatherhood do actually make him grow up. As this is something that happens to men in real life, one could argue that Alleyn's career is another proof that Dame Ngaio Marsh was too good a writer to waste her talent on mere thrillers. Not even thrillers but detective stories.

To me that is a fatuous notion. Writing a good, tightly plotted, well developed detective story is considerably more difficult than writing a novel that resembles a shapeless pudding (in Matthew Arnold's inimitable words about Russian novels) with a bit of detection thrown in. There are far too many of the latter kind around and not nearly enough of the former. Dame Ngaio Marsh, for all her faults and for all the weak novels, produced around half a dozen extremely good ones in which plots, characterization and social description came together to produce, if not masterpieces, at least extremely readable entertainment.

Dr Helen Szamuely is a writer and political researcher as well as editor of the Conservative History Journal and co-editor of

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Dame Ngaio is good, but there are literally dozens of so-called "Golden Age" detective writers who are virtually forgotten. These include (among others) R.Austin Freeman, John Rhode, Miiles Burton, J.J. Connington, Freeman Wills Crofts, Clifford Witting, and probably a dozen others. All of them produced works at least as good as anything by Agatha Christie, but their works are obtainable today (for the most part) only in places like the London Library. A real pity.

Posted by: Professor Bill Rubinstein at September 25, 2007 08:44 AM
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