Friday, 9 June 2017

Books to Read Again: the Inspector Alleyn books by Ngaio Marsh

Illustrated endpapers from Scales of Justice (1955)
Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealand writer who created the quintessentially English (and rather posh) Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and his sidekick Inspector Fox (not posh at all).

She is always described as one of the "Queens of Crime", the women writers who dominated the golden age of crime writing (says Wikipedia) along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. She studied painting before becoming an actress and later a producer and director in the theatre. So it's no surprise that one of her recurring characters is Agatha Troy RA, a very celebrated artist, later Mrs Roderick Alleyn, and a number of the books have to a greater or lesser extent, a theatrical background.

There are 32 Alleyn novels published between 1934 to 1982. And they seem to be set in the year they were written which in the end I think is rather a mistake. Because Roderick Alleyn is 43 in Death at the Bar (published 1940 but obviously written before WWII) and Fox is older still; probably 50. So how old can they be in the final book Light Thickens (1982)? Far too old to be employed by Scotland Yard, that's for certain.

Plan of the flats in Surfeit of Lampreys (1941)
For the most part I think the earlier books are better. Dragging Alleyn and Fox into 1960s and 70s attitudes doesn't really work too well. Interestingly the leading lady in False Scent (1960) is described as being past her sell by date (not in so many words of course); her style of acting outmoded and the plays she stars in passé. So it's rather a shame that the same could be said of some of the later books.

If you read the books simply as whodunnits most of them are a great read with very carefully plotted murders and squadrons of suspicious characters just queueing up to be suspected. I've now read all the books several times (except one which I couldn't finish a second time), and some more than ten times so I nearly always remember who dunnit. But the plots are mostly such fun that it's worthwhile reading the books again even if you know what's going to happen.

Allen does not emerge fully formed. In A Man Lay Dead (1934) he acts completely unlike his later self and recruits the help not only of Nigel Bathgate, a young journalist (who somewhat improbably becomes his "Watson" in several books), but also Miss Angela North (later Mrs Bathgate) who burgles a friend's flat to assist Alleyn's enquiries. Basically A Man Lay Dead is a country house murder story, but there's a weird Russian anarchist sub-plot which doesn't really seem to work. But Russian anarchists were popular in those days. Sadly we never meet Miss Angela again. Sadly because she is strikingly intelligent and a really fun character. But of course, she is a young woman, soon married, and of course condemned to be nothing but a mother because it was the 1930s.
The Ball in Death in a White Tie (1938) takes place in this house: how can there be windows on the left side of the ground and first floor if the Green Boudoir is shown in the correct place? What shape is this building? Is it a strange flying freehold perhaps? 
Ngaio Marsh gives us country house mysteries; locked room plots; plots where the protagonists are cut off from the rest of the world (deep snow drifts or trapped on an island in a lake); plots where the murderer is so obvious you don't pick him; plots where the murderer is so un-obvious you don't pick him because you never noticed he was there all along; plots where the victim seems as though he/she was mistaken for someone else; plots where all the clues were washed up/tidied up weeks or months ago. She seems to have put a lot of effort into ringing the changes so that first time readers really don't know what to expect.

I should say though, that if you don't enjoy the theatre, some of these books are not for you. After reading Light Thickens I felt I could take quite a tough exam on Macbeth and a couple of the others are full of stage directions and deal in quite obsessive detail with plays that, frankly, I'm glad I don't have to sit through; Opening Night for example features a play I would hate. But I think it is very much of its time. There's also a great deal of detail about painting in Artists in Crime (where Alleyn meets Troy for the first time), Final Curtain where Troy is the leading character, and a couple of the other books.

Illustrated endpapers from Clutch of Constables (1968)
Ngaio Marsh characters do have certain idiosyncrasies. A lot of the women have rather odd names: Martyn Tarn, Lady Hersey Amblington, Terence Lynne or Decima Moore (an only child, not the last of ten) while the men are named Nicholas, Jonathan, Henry or Norman.  We also encounter quite a lot of characters who "have a trick" of opening their eyes very wide (I've tried this in the mirror: it doesn't help me see any better and only makes me look odd), or of letting their voice die away at the end of a sentence. Again, I've tried this but it somehow doesn't work for me!

That's all very fine, all writers write their characters in their own way, but then you get far too many "middle aged" women who act strangely, obsessively, avidly, really quite unpleasantly or even a little bit madly (anyone for black magic?) and this is all put down to the "time of life" (again, not in so many words). Because obviously all women go a bit bonkers in middle age. Hush! whisper it: could this be something to do with the menopause? Considering that Ngaio Marsh was a woman I find myself puzzled as much as offended by this attitude. She never married, and it seems had close relationships only with women so.... Perhaps, though, she went through a terrible menopause herself and genuinely thought it normal for women to behave abnormally in their forties or fifties.

Unfortunately if you read the books carefully, you'll notice that they are either written with a distinct lack of attention to detail, or were very badly edited. In Surfeit of Lampreys, the heroine, Robin has a bedroom curtained off from the hall; more than once someone knocks on the door. In the same book we are told that Uncle Gabriel and Aunt Violet will be arriving at 6 on Friday evening. Ten pages later when they do arrive we are told the family was only expecting Uncle Gabriel and they are all quite disconcerted to see Aunt Violet. Later Aunt Kit goes to visit the Jewish pawn broker at his home on the same Friday evening (perhaps Ngaio Marsh really didn't realise how improbable that was), and the following day Lord Charles goes to discuss matters with his bank manager. On a Saturday afternoon? I'm not sure.

In Death at the Bar we are told the Plume of Feathers pub has four guest rooms. but at the start of the book five people are staying there, and by the end there are six. In the same book the victim is stabbed with a dart in his third finger, or two pages later, in his middle finger.

I confess I never noticed any discrepancies when I first read these books but I do feel some of them are a little sloppy. You're probably thinking "Wow! she's picky", but these things are important.
This is the site plan for Black as He's Painted (1974) which looks very like Ennismore Gardens and the surrounding streets (which feature a hole in the wall) in Knightsbridge. Which is to say, not far from Harrods and the Brompton Oratory. 
OK, now I've been quite critical I'd like to go back to telling you how much I enjoy these books. Most of the time. And they've become true comfort reading for me. Don't let my nitpicking put you off.

I also enjoy the UK TV versions of some of the books. They're nicely made TV shows packed with period detail. However, unfortunately for a fan like me, the producers decided to add in extra and unnecessary chunks of plot that aren't in the books. They also decided to insert Troy into stories she shouldn't be in; Troy doesn't feature in every book, and they moved the setting of Dead Water from Cornwall to a Scottish Island. Worst of all, in the books Alleyn affectionately calls Inspector Fox "Foxkin" and "Brer Fox". In the TV version he calls him "Brer". Why make this silly change? It's really annoying to anyone who has read and loved the books.

I haven't seen the New Zealand adaptations. There are three stories set in New Zealand and one in London featuring a New Zealand born actress. I don't think these programmes have ever been shown in the UK, or available on DVD here. What a pity.

Nearly all the books are available at very reasonable prices from second hand book dealers so there's nothing to stop you giving them a go. I recently replaced all my paperbacks with hardbacks and really didn't spend a lot of money.