Monday, 3 August 2009

Ngaio Marsh


Ngaio Marsh was one of the great names of the Golden Age of detective fiction, but I I’ve seldom if ever mentioned her in this blog. The omission isn’t due to disregard. In my teens, I read quite a few of her books, but although I thought her a smooth writer, the plots didn’t match up to those of Christie or Sayers, and before long I focused my attention on more contemporary writers, such as Michael Gilbert and Julian Symons.

But every now and then I’ve dabbled in Marsh. For instance, I watched one or two of the Inspector Alleyn mysteries on television, and I recently treated myself to the box set (when I’ll ever find time to watch all the episodes is a conundrum I haven’t solved as yet.) And I very much enjoyed Margaret Lewis’s biography of Ngaio. It’s a substantial work, tirelessly researched, by an academic with a huge love of detective fiction. In fact, Margaret, along with her husband Peter, preside over Flambard Press, an excellent small press who brought out Dancing for the Hangman late last year.

Margaret also helped me to include a short article by Ngaio which I featured in a collection of Northern crime writing called Northern Blood. How I managed to justify including something by a New Zealander in a book focusing on the North of England is another story!

I’ve now obtained a copy of Ngaio Marsh: the woman and her work. This is a collection of essays edited by B.J.Rahn – who, is, like Margaret, an academic whose passion for the genre is matched by her knowledge and understanding of it. The contributors include Margaret, Julian Symons, Catherine Aird, Harry Keating and Doug Greene. I’m looking forward to reading it.

11 comments:

vegetableduck said...

I've been doing the final (pending submission) revisions on the Henry Wade chapter and in footnote 35 I have a bit of a disagreement with one of the essay writers in that collection on Roderick Alleyn as the first of that band of genteel police detectives. Alleyn was preceded by five years by Wade's Poole (also by a single year by Punshon's Bobby Owen).

There's a good essay in there by BA Pike, I believe, on Surfeit of Lamprey (even if I'm not sure I agree with it). Doug wrote the preface to the American edition of Marsh's collected short fiction as well.

Surfeit of Lampreys was the first Marsh I read and I have to say I quite loathed it at the time! Now I have come around to the mainstream view that it is her best after all. I would rank Artists in Crime, Death in a White Tie, Colour Scheme and Opening Night pretty close to it.

Her plots aren't as brilliant as Christie's but Marsh never shirked the technical detail of clueing, while providing smoothly entertaining light writing. I think in Surfeit of Lampreys she best attained that novel of manners ideal that Sayers aimed for with her later works. I would rank this with Allingham's More Work for the Undertaker as really approaching a successful light straight novel (with murder thrown in) in its thorough recreation of a fascinating milieu.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I always preferred her to Christie, Alligham and most of her contemporaries. Alleyn seemed quite a realistic portrayal of a detective. She could tell a credible story without smoke and mirrors. I'll look for this book.

Dorte H said...

I own 17 of her mysteries, and I have certainly read them, but while I tend to revisit Christie and Sayers once every few years, I have never really felt like re-reading any of her novels. They were not bad at all, but when I look at my list, I can´t say I remember the plot of any of them. Alleyn was likeable, but many of those old detectives were a bit bland because they were so spotlessly perfect.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I never read any Marsh. Were her plots just not as original as Christie's and Sayers'?

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh, you've got to develop a crush on Alleyn.

seanag said...

I did read a couple of these, and seem to agree with the general consensus here. But I have a feeling that for me at least, they are probably due a revisit.

seanag said...

Oh, you've got to develop a crush on Alleyn.

I think that's very astute, Patti.

Les Blatt said...

I have always enjoyed Marsh's novels, and I agree with the comments here about Alleyn's sophistication and believability. I've always felt that her books held up well on rereading. I have reviewed some of her works on my "Classic Mysteries" podcast. Thanks for reminding me about the values of "A Surfeit of Lampreys," which was published in the U. S. as "Death of a Peer" - I'll add that to my rereading list. Enjoy the Rahn book - the essays are, for the most part, excellent.

Martin Edwards said...

These are terrific comments - belated thanks to all of you (I've just got back home...)

Anonymous said...

"Surfeit of Lampreys" was one of the first mystery novels I ever read, and helped hook me on the genre for life - despite the fact that as a 9 year old back in the early 1950s I had been exposed to very little realistic violence in my reading or filmgoing, and the murder method in Surfeit made me feel physically ill - Marsh's description of its aftermath, half-glimpsed through her young heroine's eyes, is a masterly lesson in the craft of conveying horror with the minimum of detail.
Actually, just thinking of it still makes me feel ill!

Martin Edwards said...

I haven't read Surfeit, Anonymous, but clearly I ought to!