In a similar way to other Golden Age writers, Ngaio Marsh was a reasonably prolific writer, writing 32 novels between 1934 and 1982. Again like other writers, it is hard to keep up the same standards; there are always going to be some not so good and possibly even terrible stories. But for the Marsh beginner, how do you decide which ones to pick? I know some people prefer to read series chronologically and sometimes due to the characters and plots this can be fundamental. However, I think with this particular series you can get away with not doing so and more importantly in this post I plan to give 5 suggestions for Marsh novels to try and I have tried to pick ones which span the series and show I think, Inspector Alleyn at his best (though I imagine some people will disagree with my choices). I am also going to suggest 5 books to avoid, though critics of Marsh would probably say there were more than 5!
5 To Try
- The Nursing Home Murder (1935)
This is the third novel in the series. It centres on the death of a politician who dies shortly after an appendicitis operation. In true Golden Age style there are a plethora of people who wanted him dead within and beyond the operating team. I think this is the first strongest novel in the series as Inspector Alleyn begins to lose his Bright Young Things manner and I also think the setting of the crime and its’ set up was also well done. Deaths during and after hospital procedures is also a milieu utilised by later writers such as Green for Danger (1944) by Christianna Brand and P. D. James in The Private Patient (2008). In comparison to her first two novels A Man Lay Dead (1934) and Enter a Murderer (1935), the crime setup/ murder method seems more original and I would be interested if anyone reading this knows of any novels with a similar plot published prior to 1935.
2. Artists in Crime (1938)
Critics such as Douglas Greene suggest that this is the novel where Inspector Alleyn discards his more flippant and ridiculous manner and instead becomes more serious and mature. Though as this part of character dies, the element of romance and love enters, as this is the book where Inspector Alleyn and his future wife, Agatha Troy, the artist meet. Agatha Troy is an engaging character, who although doesn’t get to do much sleuthing in her own right, still remains an independent and strong character, with a career of her own. Though murder and art do cross paves in the series, none more so than in this novel where Inspector Alleyn is called down to an artist’s colony where the artist’s model has been found murdered. All the members of the colony, including Troy are potential suspects in this mystery.
3. Surfeit of Lampreys (1941)
Like Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935), Surfeit of Lampreys is also a book which divides opinions and is Marsh’s marmite book, people either love it or hate it, so in a way it is an important novel to try in the series to see which camp you fit into. I enjoyed reading it (which definitely puts me in the minority group), as I think Marsh’s skills as a characteriser are showcased in this novel as they focus on one family, the Lampreys. Whilst reading Douglas Greene’s introduction to The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh (1989), I was interested to read that the Lamprey family in the novel was based on friends she had in London and she even opened a shop called Touch and Go with some of them selling; ‘handcrafts… [and] funny rhymes for bathroom and lavatory doors’ (Greene, 1989: 8).
4. Scales of Justice (1955)
In a quiet country backwater murder is afoot when Colonel Cartarette is found murdered near a river, a setup which can also be found in Harriet Rutland’s Bleeding Hooks (1940). Again characterisation is very well done in this novel and I think the plot as a whole is strong. Often in Marsh novels, the setup of the crime is really good, only to then be followed by a dull investigation. However, I think in this story this is less of a problem, as the evidence and clues cast the net of suspicion widely, putting those with dark family secrets, an unpredictable archer and a rival fisherman potentially all in the frame of murderer. Although it was written outside of the Golden Age of crime, it still holds true to that style and the tropes involved.
5. Clutch of Constables (1968)
Having on the whole found Marsh’s books much poorer after 1960s, there are a few exceptions and this is one of them. A killer is loose on an English river boat cruise and again this book is one of the stronger later books in the series because Marsh sticks to what she knows best and that is writing a detective set within the Golden Age style. There is an eclectic group of passengers including Agatha Troy and what made this an enjoyable read was her more dominant role in the plot, being almost like Alleyn’s eyes and ears at some points.
Tied up in Tinsel (1972)
Though not in my 5 To Try, if you are wanting to start with a festive Marsh this December, you only have one choice, mainly because she only wrote one Christmas themed novel. However, this is another strong story from her later works and like Francis Duncan’s Murder at Christmas (1949), there is indeed a dead Father Christmas.
5 To Avoid
- A Man Lay Dead (1934)
This first suggestion of Marsh books to avoid is actually supported by the author herself who in her autobiographical novel Black Beech and Honey Dew (1965) says how much she dislikes it, believing ‘that before or since… [she has] ever written with less trouble and certainly with less distinction.’ Personally I wouldn’t go as far as that and think there are far worse novels in her canon. I, like Douglas Greene, think what lets this book down is how much of ‘a twit’ (Greene, 1989: 8) Inspector Alleyn acts like and the tale including a Murder game gone wrong and even a Russian spy plot does seem a bit too ridiculous. Thankfully, Inspector Alleyn does improve with time. Interestingly, Marsh told an interviewer that she also disliked the title of this book, thinking it sounded ‘awfully like “A Man-Laid Egg.”
2. Death in Ecstasy (1936)
The murder investigation in this novel centres on a death in a religious order called the House of the Scared Flame. What made this novel a bit of a let-down was the ridiculousness of the setup as the milieu wasn’t expertly created and seemed a bit stereotypical and the presence of Nigel Bathgate (who is a journalist who appears only in some of the earlier novels such as A Man Lay Dead and occasionally gets involved in the cases), ensures that this book reverts to the farcicalness of the very first books and therefore weakens the plot and the characterisation of Alleyn.
3. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)
I think the main reason I selected this novel as one to avoid was because of the way it sets up your expectations high with its beginning, to only then really disappoint with the investigation and ending. The novel starts with Jonathan Royal explaining to his friend how he has invited people to his country home for the weekend, who all have reasons to loathe and hate each other. Mr Mandrake predicts that Jonathan has invited ‘stark murder to… [his] house,’ but Jonathan is eager to ‘let them enact their drama.’ This eagerness rather dissipates when the accidents start occurring and even worse they are trapped with each other due to the snow. Now on the face of it this is a good start, but the investigation which follows is not only dull, but is too rushed and due to quite significant information being withheld from the reader, Inspector Alleyn really does whip the solution to the case out of his hat. Moreover, having reflected on the book since reading it, I think the inclusion of the very literal dancing footman, doesn’t really add much to the story and is perhaps a throwback to the sillier nature of the earlier novels. A possible reason for why Marsh novels start great, but then flop is because of her artistic background. Douglas Greene writes that ‘her real interests were painting and the theatre,’ as opposed to a true detective fiction writer like Christie, meaning that ‘she brought to her writing the clearsightedness of an outsider – an outsider who could view a scene as a painter and plot with the dramatic sense of a playwright’ (Greene, 1989: 7). I certainly agree with the idea of her painter’s eye affecting her writing as I think it contributes to the strong starts of her novels. However, I am not so sure about her ‘dramatic sense of a playwright’ influencing her plots. Others such as Brad Friedman, who in his post ‘NGAIO MARSH: The Third Queen of Crime,’ has commented that Marsh’s plots aren’t really memorable, like those of Christie are and this may be due to lack of originality, but I also think it is because there is no sustainable tension or drama in the books, or if the beginning of the book has this, the investigation can very often kill it.
4. Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954)
From the books I have read, this is definitely the worst book written by Marsh in my opinion. On holiday with his family, Inspector Alleyn in the Mediterranean is required to go back to work on what can only be described as the most ludicrous of cases, involving seeing a woman being attacked in a window from a train, Inspector Alleyn’s son being kidnapped, a wealthy woman dying in a remote and well-guarded villa with a creepy owner and lots of female nincompoops. Some may say that Marsh is trying to harness the gothic in this novel, but the results are catastrophic, with a poor show from beginning to end.
5. Photo Finish (1980)
This is definitely one of the weaker novels published post 1960 and I think in contrast to novels such as Tied up in Tinsel, Clutch of Constables and When in Rome (1970), one reason it is a poor read is because Marsh tries to modernise and update her characters to fit the 1970/80s era, which is crystallised in poor Troy who must be quite old by this point wearing a jumpsuit. For me, Inspector Alleyn and Agatha Troy work best in the Golden Age world of the 1930s and 40s and Marsh’s poor attempt at changing this could only be topped if Christie had ever put Miss Marple in lycra. Furthermore, the plot itself was disappointing, with the investigation being painfully slow and undramatic, despite the hype which is created in the story about Inspector Alleyn’s plan to unmask the killer. The solution again was pulled out of a hat and wasn’t that interesting and the novel ends with vague and abstract thoughts on the countryside.
So hopefully I have directed you to some good Marsh novels and helped you to avoid the worst of them. As always let me know if you agree or disagree with my suggestions by commenting below.