As part of my decision this year to make sure I read books which have been in my TBR pile for a while I decided to review Ngaio Marsh’s Dead Water (1964), which has been languishing in my TBR pile for some months.
Dead Water begins on a small Cornish island near to a fishing village called Portcarrow. A young boy called Wally Trehern and who has epilepsy, seems to magically lose the warts on his hands after encountering a green lady at a spring on the island. The various inhabitants of both the island and the village react in different ways. The majority are unsurprisingly sceptical such as his teacher Jenny Williams (who is from New Zealand), Doctor Maine who is in charge of the local convalescent home, the Reverend Carstairs and Patrick Ferrier. The latter is the step son of the local pub owner, Major Keith Barrimore, who conversely is interested in the commercial value such a tale could have. It seems it is only Elspeth Cost who believes whole heartedly in the story and even claims her asthma has been cured by doing a similar thing.
The story then jumps two years ahead and a whole tourist industry has been created around these supposedly miraculous falls. Emily Pride plans to change this though and having inherited the island from her sister, is keen to put a stop to all commercial exploitation of the spring. Not only is she doubtful about the claims made about the spring, but she is also annoyed that such enterprises persuade sick people to not seek proper medical advice and in fact a friend of hers died from such a situation. Inspector Alleyn, our series sleuth, is brought into the story by the fact Emily Pride was his French tutor whilst he was learning the language for the diplomatic service and she has called him in now because of the threatening letters she has received. Not that these letters stop her from making a visit to the island…
Pride’s worst fears about the island are proven correct as Wally’s parents exploit him for money and there is even a gift shop run by Elspeth which sells cheap plastic statues of the green lady. Emily Pride receives a lukewarm welcome understandably from most of the local inhabitants, who see her plans as the end of their financial prosperity. This animosity to Emily’s plans is expressed in different ways by different characters, such as verbal rage from Elspeth who is told by Emily that unless she removes the souvenirs from her shop, her rental agreement won’t be renewed in 3 months time. However, more physical expressions of disagreement are also deployed, such as stone throwing, anonymous phone calls, unpleasant effigies and trip wires, the latter of which causes Inspector Alleyn sufficient concern to arrive on the scene in person.
One of the things which made this a better read than some of Marsh’s other novels is the interjection of humour. This is particularly showcased in the anniversary festival Elspeth Cost organises at the spring to celebrate the appearance of the green lady. This part of the story is described like the opening night of a play, which is humorously incongruous. Moreover, the whole festival is embarrassingly funny for the readers and characters watching the performance alike, culminating in everyone rushing for cover as a storm drenches them all.
However, it is the day after this festival, when Inspector Alleyn hopes to leave with Emily, that a body is discovered. The body is Elspeth Cost’s, but a key question for Alleyn to solve is whether she was actually the intended victim or was she mistaken for Emily Pride? Was the killer also the person who enacted the threats against Emily Pride earlier in the story? Or is there another reason why someone might want Elspeth dead? As is common in Golden Age styled detective novels, many of the characters happened to be in vicinity of the place where the murder occurred. But which one was there with murderous intentions? The revelation scene at the end of the novel is fairly dramatic involving a storm and Inspector Alleyn in peril. On the whole I think the investigation by Alleyn is less boring than it can be, although the ending of the book massively relied on the killer panicking. The mystery itself was solid enough, but for inexplicable reasons I just didn’t find the story as gripping or as exciting as I would have liked.
The characterisation in the novel was strong overall, (though Wally’s mother was perhaps a little two dimensional, coming across as an intoxicated witch from Macbeth with all her cackling). In particular I thought there were moments where Marsh succinctly managed to sum a character up, such as with the Major who looked like ‘an illustration from an Edwardian sporting journal’. Moreover, her character descriptions are also utile in demonstrating personality and group dynamics such as when Emily Pride is said to look ‘like some Burmese female deity,’ with the implication being that she is the character who has the most power. This is reinforced when it is said that ‘at five o clock she caused tea to be brought to her,’ as I felt the verb ‘ caused’ was an unusual choice, as it makes her come across as someone so powerful that she can get tea brought to her without asking. Although it is interesting that after the murder her powerful aura is dissipated, as she feels guilty that Elspeth might have been killed because of her.
On a final note the idea of the green lady intrigued me, so after a small internet search later, it seems that there are many historical sights in England, but most significantly in Scotland, who seem to have a green lady story attached to them. Examples include Ashintully Castle, Crathes Castle, Knock Castle, Prideaux Place and Barony of Ladyland where there is a smuggler’s glen. This ‘is said to be the haunt of the ghost of a Green Lady, wearing an emerald dress and is said to rise from the depths and glide across the dark waters of the deep pool at the foot of the main waterfall’ (Wikipedia). I felt this example fitted the closest to Marsh’s novel, though of course in her story, supernatural explanations are only supported by characters who tend to come across as ridiculous.