Curtis Evans’s typically knowledgeable and perceptive review of Ngaio Marsh’s Swing, Brother Swing over at his blog reminded me that I had long wanted to do a piece on one of my favorite mystery writers and certainly the one « Crime Queen » who gets the least critical love these days, so here it is.
My fondness for Dame Ngaio rests on a paradox: I see her both as the best writer of all Crime Queens in purely literary terms but also the poorest as far as plots are concerned, and the latter is probably the reason or one of the reasons why she often gets a bad rap these days. She obviously tried hard – Josephine Tey she wasn’t – but the sad fact is that few of her plots are more than adequate, and many are badly flawed – either the solution is obvious or the clueing is deficient or both. Marsh by her own admission wasn’t a great plotter and her work provides considerable evidence that she actually considered all the murder/investigation/solution business as a bore. It is often said about some extremely gifted crime writers that they’re wasting their talent and should write « serious » fiction; it’s undoubtedly true as far as Marsh is concerned. She was obviously more in her element drawing characters and describing settings than devicing a puzzle and explaining everything in the end.
That is why, as has often been noted, a typical Ngaio Marsh novel (for there are some atypical ones) falls into two parts that never connect. She begins by setting the scene and introducing the characters, which she does extremely well and provides the most pleasurable moments in the book – then someone gets killed and trouble arises. Marsh despite being five decades in the business never found out how to conciliate drama and detection, character development and puzzle. The crime puts a stop to the narrative as the focus switches from the suspects to Inspector Alleyn whose investigations take center stage. The problem is, said investigations are often dull as they merely consist in repetitive interviews of the suspects, interspersed with some physical examination of the crime scene. The stuff of all detective stories, but Marsh unlike her colleagues never manages to make it interesting because she didn’t know how or care to build up suspense, and the reader’s interest dangerously falters as the investigation proceeds. Then suddenly comes the solution, which is sometimes clever but rarely groundbreaking and may appear kind of a cheat as Alleyn often doesn’t bother explaining how he got there – and so ends the book. Frustrating, you said?
Another problematic feature is the rather monolithic quality of her work, both in artistic and social terms. Her early books set a formula which she more or less followed for all her career; she rarely tried to stray away from it and never made any attempt at « pushing the envelope » like her fellow Crime Queens did. Neither did she envision writing about someone else than Inspector Alleyn, to whom she was as committed as Chandler was to Marlowe. Also and finally her post-war books stubbornly refused to reflect the changes in British society and mores. Christie is often – unfairly – criticized for having ignored the evolution of the genre in the years after WW2 but Marsh was arguably even more conservative, though slightly more liberal politically than Agatha.
All this leads to one question: Why did Marsh write detective novels? Her interests and talent obviously lay elsewhere, and she didn’t put too much effort in hiding it. Money is an obvious answer; it also accounts for their work’s immobilism – you don’t tinker with a successful formula. Marsh knew what her readers wanted, and she happily (?) obliged. At this point I can hear you asking: « Wait, that’s a rather damning analysis, isn’t it? And yet you said she’s one of your favourite mystery writers? How come? » Just wait a minute. The praise is coming.
Marsh, as I said above, was not the best of the Crime Queens when it came at intricate, unguessable plots, which may be a problem when these are the only things you’re after as a reader, but she largely makes up for it in the « literary » department. Her prose is elegant yet economical – she doesn’t have Allingham’s occasional tendency to overwrite. Her characterization is also second to none and in some respects more « adult » than that of her sisters in crime, a fact that is reflected by her choice of detective.
Kate Jackson and I had recently a mild disagreement over Alleyn’s literary/historical importance, and I readily admit that Roderick is not as flamboyant and memorable a character as Hercule or Lord Peter – and it is indeed the point. Alleyn is one of the most normal of all Golden Age sleuths, his aristocratic lineage notwithstanding. He has no quirks, he is not a supermind and except for his odd way to address his sidekick behaves and thinks like a regular human being. Also he is a policeman, not an amateur – and Marsh is the only Crime Queen to have made her primary sleuth a member of the police force. In other words, he is believable and relatable in a way that most of his « colleagues » were not (and I’m not intending this as criticism – unlike Raymond I don’t see realism as the ultimate goal of « respectable » fiction)
I also admit to a fondness for his wife, Agatha better known as « Troy » and for two reasons. The first one is that like her husband she is a credible, likeable character – much more credible and likeable, blasphemous as it is, than Harriet Vane. The second one is that she seems to have acted as a stimulant on Marsh’s imagination as some of the latter’s best books have her presence in common. The finest is certainly Clutch of Constables where she is the main protagonist and that also happens to boast one of Marsh’s most clever plots. The way she switches suspicion from one character to the other is masterful and suggests that Marsh, had she been more interested in the mechanics of plotting, might have been a more than competent puzzler; as it is, she was a more than competent writer and that’s not bad either.