Warning: The following essay heavily borrows from, and expands on, this earlier one. It doesn’t mean that you can skip either or both, but we warned if you proceed that you may find some familiar arguments here and there.
Ngaio Marsh’s placing in the Pantheon of Golden Age writers is a paradoxical one. She is widely (though no longer universally) accepted as being one of the so-called Crime Queens, the four female crime writers that for many epitomize the period and yet she often comes across as a reluctant, last-hour add-on. She isn’t as clever as Christie, as « literary » as Sayers, as original as Allingham. Heck, she qualifies as Golden Age only by the margins, having published her first detective novel only in 1934, much later than any of her colleagues, and produced some of her most famous and acclaimed work after the period. Finally, she was much less of an influence, at least an avowed one, on later crime writers. So what is her claim to greatness? Many of my fellow bloggers have debated this issue lately, often though not always with a negative viewpoint, but I won’t join them here as the focus of this article is the creature, not the creator.
Inspector Roderick Alleyn, just like his « mother », looks curiously out of place among the « Great Detectives » crowd and also like his mother is best described in a negative fashion: he is not Poirot, he is not Lord Peter and he is not Campion, though in another paradox he’s got a little something from all of them. If not for his aristocratic background and manners that were probably meant to give some cachet – the fictional detective market was an overcrowded one at the time, and you had to come up with some memorable trait if you wanted your character to become and remain popular – he doesn’t come across as a peculiarly outstanding fellow. What’s more, he is a professional and mostly acts like one – while not a « realist » writer, Marsh pays slightly more attention to procedure than her fellow Crime Queens – which basically makes him the gentry’s answer to Inspector French.
This apparent dullness doesn’t mean that nothing ever happens in his life – among other things he meets his mate, painter Agatha Troy (who ironically has now become more popular with readers than him) and they have a son imaginatively named Roderick (« Ricky ») – but even these events are significantly downplayed when compared to, say, the Lord Peter-Harriet Vane saga.
Is he a brilliant mind at least, making up for this overall lack of flamboyance? Well, he is certainly an astute fellow with a quick brain and he always gets his wo/man but one’d be hard pressed to find any case of his that represents as much of a personal triumph as Roger Ackroyd is to Poirot, The Nine Tailors to Lord Peter and Police at the Funeral to Campion to name a few. This is mostly because Marsh’s puzzles tend not to be as intricate and, yes, showy than those of her colleagues. Alleyn rarely shines as a sleuth because he is rarely given an occasion to.
So what makes him a Great Detective? I can see Kate Jackson chuckling behind her laptop screen and thinking « I told you so all the time, fellow » but I haven’t changed my mind and my answer is still the same, which is one more paradox: Roderick Alleyn is a Great Detective because he isn’t a Great Detective.
He isn’t because he couldn’t be. That he came late at the game means that the field he entered was significantly different from what it was when his predecessors came in. The Quirky-Supermind-Solving-Baffling-Cases formula was already getting stale and both seasoned and up-and-coming writers tried to escape from it. Most if not all of the significant fictional detectives introduced at the time Alleyn made his debut were either professionals (Appleby, Mallett) or « humanized » and thus fallible amateurs (Strangeways) Unlike Lord Peter or Campion who grew up to become human beings, Alleyn was born one, which makes him one of the first « modern » fictional sleuths and probably the only one of his peers who might still operate in a contemporary setting. (And he indeed does, if we admit that Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley is a barely refashioned version of him)
Another reason, and one that I think has never been addressed before, is Marsh’s proximity to the so-called Humdrum school. I didn’t mention Inspector French only as a joke (though it was one too) Marsh’s novels are often criticized for how « dull » they become once the crime is committed and Alleyn enters the narrative and some of the criticisms – the excessive attention paid to detail, the slow-moving investigation with everyone being interrogated again and again – are the same often levelled at Humdrums like Crofts or The Coles. Seen in that context, Marsh appears – whether consciously or not – to try to reconcile two schools of crime fiction that while not explicitly antagonistic never really met: The Great Detective on one hand, and the more realistic Humdrums on the other. Such an attempt wouldn’t work with, say, Hercule Poirot at the helm; but it can be managed with an Inspector Alleyn – how successfully is up to readers to say.
Dual and dull are only one letter apart. Depending on your tastes, you may apply either to Roderick Alleyn. You may even apply both as they are not exclusive. It still remains that, put in the right context, he is an important figure in the history of the detective story, every bit as his most famous and flashy colleagues, and so is his creator as one of the earliest writer of detective novels to have fully understood Bentley’s lesson and cast from the start a regular – well, almost – human being as her investigator.