Over the last couple of the weeks I have referred to this collection as part of my Tuesday Night Bloggers posts, so this week I thought I would take a look at these stories, plus an additional surprise. It’s not a new thing to say, but short stories tend to get overlooked within the Golden Age genre, though with bodies such as the British Library reprinting collections of them, this might be set to change. However, for the moment I think Ngaio Marsh, like many other Golden Age writers such as Christie, Berkeley and Sayers are best known for their detective novels than their short stories. Something I was interested in looking at while reading these stories was how they compared to Marsh’s novels in quality. A common opinion of her novels is that they are set up well, but are let down by their middles. I wondered whether this would be the case within her short stories.
Story No. 1: Death on the Air
Mr Tronk is found on Christmas day, dead by his radio and is initially assumed to have died from being electrocuted. However, when the police begin to investigate it seems Mr Tronk’s radio set has been tampered with. Like Georgette Heyer’s usual set up, this patriarchal figure is hugely unlikeable and massively bullied his family and servants, leaving the list of suspects a long one. Marsh’s set up of the novel is great but it seems she forgot that a short story is well short and the conclusion of the story is incredibly rushed and only brought about through the killer confessing in a letter.
Story No. 2: I can find my way out
Play writer Anthony Gill is deeply distressed before the opening of his play and in his position it is understandable, with Canning Cumberland always acting drunk and upstaging everyone and having guilt over the fact that the leading lady, Coralie Bourne, came up with a crucial part of the plot. Within the acting company there are also mounting rivalries and jealousies, which appear to burst on opening night, when Cumberland is found dead. Inspector Alleyn’s entrance into the story is an amusing one based on comic misunderstandings and the fact he keeps getting wrong number calls. I think this is a relatively easy mystery to solve, but I think it much better clued than the last one and the beginning, middle and end seem better balanced. In addition, the theatre in this short story reappears in Marsh’ novel, Opening Night (1951), and the incidents in this story are referred to.
Story No. 3: Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery
Timothy Bates an old New Zealand friend of Inspector Alleyn’s arrives in England on a mission and since Alleyn is away, Troy steps into help. Bates believes that foul play was committed in the village Troy lives at in 1779, as within a flyleaf of an old Bible are three names, three dates and three vengeful biblical references. Keen to solve the mystery Bates and Troy question various inhabitants for their local knowledge. But their mystery seems to run aground, with villagers reminiscing on a very different series of deaths. Yet when death strikes again, will Alleyn, who has now returned, be able to solve the case? The solution to this story is ingenious and clever, but I think it would have been better if it had been used in a novel, as it could have made aspects of the solution more plausibly established. Again Marsh finds herself a bit short of space.
Story No. 4: The Hand in the Sand
This and the others which follow don’t feature Inspector Alleyn and this particular one is based on a true crime, which occurred in 1885 in New Zealand. Marsh says she always wanted to use it in a novel but felt it too implausible for fiction. A group of men bring into a police station a severed hand, which they believed to be Arthur Howard’s, a man who has meant to have drowned and whose wife is looking for proof so she can collect the insurance money. Considering it is a true story the investigation and revelations which follow are at points remarkably fantastical.
Story No. 5: The Cupid Mirror
This is a crime story told in retrospect by a Lord John Challis, who regales his lady friend with the story of a horrid old lady who was murdered in the hotel they are in. Marsh has a succinct style in this tale, which might have been put to use in some of her earlier ones. This is neither a terrible or amazing story, but it does feed into a lot of Golden Age tropes which Marsh and other writers used in their novels.
Story No. 6 A Fool About Money
This is an amusing story which does focus on death and it pivots on social rules and behaviour, which I felt are stereotyped as being British, although this story is set in New Zealand. The tale is framed by a woman’s husband embarrassing her by always telling their guests this one incident, involving a train ride and a missing fiver. The ending is gentle but feel good one and I liked how the wife got the last laugh.
Story No. 7 Morepork
Caley Bridgeman, who is not on good terms with either his wife (who has a lover), his step son, Clive or the other campers, David Wingfield and Solomon Gosse, is found dead during a camping trip. The previous day he had gone off alone to set up recording equipment so he could record the song of the Morepork bird. His death might have been glossed over as an accident as there had been a storm the previous night, but the emergence of a deerstalking party prevents this. A mock court is set up and again this could have been a good story in a novel format, but as a short story the ending is rather rushed and overly reliant on the recording equipment.
This collection also contains a telescript/ TV play Ngaio Marsh wrote for Granada Television Limited and was released on air in 1975. It is called Evil Liver and is similar to the format of Crown Court which was another series made by the company, with the jury being made up of members of the audience. The only difference is that the guilty party is not revealed conclusively, only the jury’s verdict is known. At the end though Douglas Greene who edited this collection has written a number of possible solutions, based on the clues within the programme. Interestingly, Joan Hickson who would go on to play Miss Marple, stars in this production as Miss Freebody. The case brought forward in this fictional courtroom is that Miss Freebody on her cat being killed by her neighbour’s dog poisoned the liver brought to neighbour’s house, thus killing the dog, but Major Ecclestone believes it was also meant for him. The trial therefore focuses on proving or disapproving this and it does seem like it could go either way, until a dramatic event at the trial occurs, though this does not necessarily solve the mystery. I won’t tell you the verdict of the jury, but I was impressed with Greene’s working through of theories to his final solution which is very good. For those who like conundrums or mental puzzles, I think this story even in script form will be worth reading as it is very entertaining.
Overall I think the short stories are okay, but no great shakes. The stories I liked the most were ‘Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery’ and ‘A Fool About Money’, as the plot structure was balanced, they had engaging and amusing characters and the first of the two does have a good mystery at the heart of it. My least favourite was ‘Death on the Air’, as the ending had to be squashed into barely a page and the device of using a letter confession is a rather weak one. Looking at the short stories as a whole I can see why Marsh stuck to novels, as although there is less dull investigative work by Inspector Alleyn, there is also less space for the setting up of characters and scenes, a feature which most Marsh readers comment on as being good. Moreover, I don’t think Marsh was entirely comfortable with working within such a short space as her structures could be imbalanced so there was too much beginning and not enough end and as a consequence a few solutions had to come out of nowhere. However, I think the telescript rather steals the show and because it is a court room based drama it avoids dull police investigation work. Moreover, it means Marsh’s talent and skill for characterisation can shine through and the characters are not what they superficially seem to be. I think it is something I would have enjoyed watching, especially since it does have Joan Hickson (who was and is the best Miss Marple) in it.
My rating would have been lower but I really enjoyed Evil Liver, so gave it a higher mark.