As I mentioned earlier, I read quite a lot of Ngaio Marsh mysteries in late December and into the holiday break (I said 10 in the earlier post, but after a recount it was actually 14). Most of the ones I read were from her earlier output in the late 1930s and early to mid-1940s, though I did read several from the 50s and 60s, and finished up my spree with When in Rome (published in 1970).
Many of the secondhand paperbacks I read feature this sentence from some New York Times book review: “She writes better than Christie.” And it’s true – even in her early books you can see the sophistication behind the plotting, the characters, the sentence structure. The puzzles and solutions are compelling, Chief Inspector Alleyn makes a very interesting protagonist (and the secondary characters are generally well defined), and her writing is vivid and descriptive without being pretentious.
Marsh set herself a harder task than Christie from the beginning as well, in that Alleyn is an actual member of the C.I.D. and not a private detective (like Poirot) or a more-perceptive-than-usual elderly spinster (like Miss Marple). So much of the procedure following a homicide, is, I think more accurately depicted in Marsh’s works. Beyond Alleyn himself, there are Thompson and Bailey the fingerprint and photography guys, and Curtis the pathologist, and the coroner, and the Chief Constable, etc. etc. Marsh manages to describe their activities credibly without creating a drag on the narrative.
And there is Inspector Fox. Fox is Alleyn’s right-hand man, and he is intimately involved in almost all of the books I read. Fox presents as Alleyn’s antithesis; while Alleyn is a “gentleman” that people can’t believe is a policeman, Fox is the very caricature of a policeman, from his curly head down to his hobnail boots. He is a prototypical London working man, intensely loyal to his boss and much more snobbish/class-conscious. And, as a working man, perhaps that’s not surprising. Alleyn (as the younger son of an Earl) can afford to be tolerant and unsnobby; Fox, not so much.
Like most of the classic British mysteries, social class plays a big role in Marsh’s books. Especially in the earlier books, servants know their place, gentlemen are supposed to act like gentlemen (even when they don’t), and everyone knows when someone is “off.” A few of the earlier books feature characters with Bolshevik sympathies, and in fact in one or two of the New Zealand-located novels, socialism is accepted as the most common political leaning for all working men.
Marsh does little to counter the prevailing ideas of class, and generally accepts them as de rigeur. Interesting, as basic Wikipedia research indicates that she was born a “have not,” the only child of a bank clerk. But perhaps she understood the destruction implicit in Bolshevism better than most or, like Fox, she was content with “the way of things.”
If there’s one area where Marsh is not a better writer than Christie, it’s in love scenes, especially in her earlier books. This seems particularly, disappointingly true when she attempts to describe the grand passion of Alleyn and his beloved, artist Agatha Troy. When Alleyn and Troy first meet, on an ocean liner at the beginning of Artists in Crime (1938), he likes her and she snubs him outright. Not a promising beginning, but it’s clear they spark, even though Troy is prickly and standoffish and fights it.
But then at the end of the book he tells her he loves her, and she admits she likes him (a lot) but hates his job because it sometimes results in the death penalty and she can’t deal. (?) This ambivalence lasts through the end of the subsequent book (Death in a White Tie – also 1938), at which point she finally gives in and admits her love and they get married. But her issues with his job last through the war until Final Curtain (1946), when they finally work things out. It’s all a bit crazy and hard to swallow.
Death in a White Tie also features some of the most cringe-inducing love dialogue I’ve ever read; although I love this mystery, it’s difficult to read the Alleyn-Troy passages.
“This must be right. I swear it must be right. I can’t be feeling this alone. Troy?”
“Not now,” Troy whispered. “No more, now. Please.”
He stooped, took her face between his hands, and kissed her hard on the mouth. He felt her come to life beneath his lips. Then he let her go.
“And don’t think I shall ask you to forgive me,” he said. “You’ve no right to let this go by. You’re too damn’ particular by half, my girl. I’m your man and you know it.”
They stared at each other.
“That’s the stuff to give the troops,” Alleyn added. “The arrogant male.”
“The arrogant turkey cock,” said Troy shakily.
“I know, I know. But at least you didn’t find it unendurable. Troy, for God’s sake can’t we be honest with each other? When I kissed you just then you seemed to meet me like a flame. Could I have imagined that?”
Uuuuuuugggggghhhhh. These two are much too awesome to have to say such bilge. But given how great the rest of her writing is, I’ll give these brief terriblenesses a pass. There’s more to say about Marsh’s love of the stage, and her love of art, and her love of New Zealand, but that’ll have to wait ’til later.