Ngaio Marsh. Generally counted on one hand among the great dames of the English mystery’s golden age, Marsh is a New Zealand writer of the late 20th century. She wrote thirty-two crime novels over about fifty years, and most are considered classics of the genre. I’ve found her to be, at her best, the only mystery novelist I’ve read who is comparable to Christie within the style both wrote in – the sharpness of her characterizations of people both high and low in society, her good-humored approach to occasionally very dark and macabre stories, and most of all the atmosphere of her stories, such a warmly compelling blend of uncensored portrayal of evil and compassion and love for her characters. I should note, however, that I’ve also found her to be wildly uneven – I’ll pick up a Marsh novel and be wildly engrossed from the second page and come away hugely pleased – and the next week I’ll try another and be bored out of my mind. Generally nothing in between, either – her novels are either fantastic or total duds as far as reading pleasure and quality. Unlike Christie, she chose only one hero for her novels, the deadpan, cultured Roderick Alleyn, whose mind it is a pleasure to be in, and whose famous artist wife is a significant character in several novels.
To read: Death in a White Tie
To avoid: Black As He’s Painted, which is both melodramatic and unfortunately tainted with quite a lot of the racism that was a fact of life in Marsh’s day
The Nursing Home Murder, Ngaio Marsh
When Britain’s Home Secretary Derek 0’Callaghan dies shortly after an emergency appendicitis operation, no-one at first suspects foul play. But his wife is convinced someone killed him, and the autopsy shows poisonous levels of hyoscine, a drug used during the operation. Chief Inspector Alleyn is called in, and finds that very nearly everyone in the room had a reason to kill 0’Callaghan: the nurse was his ex-lover, the surgeon was in love with the nurse and furious at O’Callaghan for breaking her heart, and the secondary nurse is a Bolshevik sympathizer who believed 0’Callaghan was ruining the country.
This is Ngaio Marsh’s third book in the Alleyn series, and it’s not very good: it’s neither a good Marsh novel nor a good mystery in general. The plot is relatively complex; multiple suspects, all with opportunity and good motives, and about a dozen red herrings appear, in particular the victim’s sister as a suspect. It’s also difficult to keep track of the exact order of events during the operation; 0’Callaghan receives three separate injections, all administered by different people – all suspects – and none of this part becomes clear until Alleyn stages a reconstruction of the operation toward the end of the novel. Had Marsh placed this reconstruction toward the beginning, the actual events, and the stakes at play, would have been much clearer and the reader would have been given more reason to be invested. As it is, it is not infrequently confusing, and this isn’t helped by the majority of the suspects being rather stupid, uninteresting people, drawn by Marsh with one-note characterizations. Sir Robert Phillips, the surgeon and an old friend of the Secretary’s, is the only interesting one, and even his purpose in life is reduced to a blind infatuation with one of the nurses.
All in all, this is perhaps the weakest Marsh I’ve read so far. The characteristics that would make her later books so satisfying – her incisive character sketching, the warmth and humor of Inspector Alleyn, her ability to turn a plot on a small, overlooked detail – are only faintly present – the stirrings of a great writer trying to break through inexperience. Her later Alleyn novels show an incredibly developed confidence and prowess for plot; this is competent but dull.