Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Tuesday Night Blogs: Ngaio Marsh as writer

For anyone who wants to read last week's blogs on Ngaio Marsh, the links are to be found here, on Moira Redmond's delightful blog Clothes in Books. (What a great idea. I am still mulling over a study on food in detective stories. Move over types of tobacco ash and motets of Lassus.)

As a writer, Dame Ngaio Marsh is one of the best among classic detective story authors. I do know that many people find her plotting a little tedious, what with pages of interrogation by Alleyn and his underlings, something I cannot quite understand. Somebody once said to me that they would have preferred more detection. But interrogation is detection, as much as the finding of a cigarette butt or two is; discussion between police officers can lead one to the right solution and is used extensively in more modern police procedurals. Why not by Marsh?

Julian Symons in his seminal (I use the word advisedly) study of crime and detective literature was disappointed in Marsh.
Ngaio Marsh never went as far as Allingham in attempting to write novels with a detective element, rather than detective stories. Her capacity for amused observation of the undercurrents beneath ordinary social interchanges was so good that one hoped for more than she ever tried to do. The first half of Opening Night (1951) gives a brilliant picture of the intrigues taking place before the opening of a new play. All this is, as it should be, preparation for the murder that takes place, and we hope that after the murder the book will remain in the same key and that the problems will be resolved as they began, in terms of character. To our disappointment, however, Marsh takes refuge from real emotional problems in the official investigation and interrogation of suspects. The temperature is lowered, the mood has been lost. 
Well, I am afraid I disagree with the great man. (I often do with his judgements but for all of that Bloody Murder remains my constant companion and a reference book that has had to be replaced at least once, it was so worn out.) I consider Marsh to be a far better writer than Allingham though neither of them is another Dostoyevsky who did, indeed, write novels with a detective element. That does not seem to me to be such a problem as we need both Dostoyevsky and ordinary crime writers.

Allingham started writing in her teens and was, obviously, a very precocious youngster. The trouble is that, in my opinion, her writing continued to be that of a precocious youngster even when she was considerably older. Marsh, on the other hand, had the ability to describe people, places and events in a way that stay with the reader long after the reading of the book.

The beginning of Opening Night is, indeed, very good and the description of the newly arrived young actress from New Zealand, Martyn Tarne, going from theatre to theatre to find a job and beginning almost to hallucinate from exhaustion and hunger is superb. Far better, dare I say it, than anything Allingham could ever manage. The subsequent description of the theatrical intrigues is, as Julian Symons says, highly entertaining and the solution does depend on certain aspects of personalities. The victim is killed because of what he is and the murderer's motivation could not be any other person's.

There are many other such incidents. Peregrine Jay's (a great name for an actor and playwright) fall into the filthy water and his despair and disgust when he nearly drowns in it, surrounded as he is by lavatorial discards, is one such excellently described scene in Death at the Dolphin.

Then there is the beginning of Black As He Is Painted (a novel with many faults) when a newly retired top civil servant, wondering what he is going to do with his life, goes to see a house on a whim and is bewitched by it and by a cat who is determined to adopt him. His attempts to resist the lure of both house and cat fail as we know they would.

There are two more aspects to Marsh's writing that are worth emphasising and both have to do with her ability to create strong characters who develop through the series (though, inevitably, Superintendent Alleyn who is 47 in 1943, goes on working far beyond retirement age).

Alleyn starts off in A Man Lay Dead (or A Man Laid An Egg as Marsh herself described it later in her life) and in Enter A Murderer, the only theatrical book of hers that is not a success, as a sort of sub-Wimsey type farceur who produces inappropriate quotations and makes facetious comments that annoy everybody in sight. He gradually discards some of his most annoying habits though they are revived whenever Nigel Bathgate happens to be around. In the fifth book Artists in Crime, he meets the artist Agatha Troy, a character Marsh was very fond of, and from then on he really does become a human being. She accepts him in the following book, Death in White Tie, so we are spared the lengthy courtship of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane or of Albert Campion and Lady Amanda Fitton.

Subsequent novels show them together or Alleyn writing letters to her and in two novels Troy plays an important part by herself. Her art remains of paramount importance. Marsh succeeds in creating a good and believable marriage between her detective and a strong professional woman, something Sayers did not, in the end, attempt and Allingham failed in. Amanda Campion as an aeronautical engineer remains less than credible; Troy Alleyn as an artist is completely real.

Partly that is because of Marsh's other strength: her ability to describe creative work. I have never been able to believe in P. D. James's Adam Dalgliesh as a poet but have absolute faith in Troy as a great artist or in Peregrine Jay as a playwright. Descriptions of Troy painting Sir Henry Ancred as an actor looking back on himself playing Macbeth or her little boy Ricky as creation of air and light are vivid and entirely believable. The only novel where this process fails is Black As He Is Painted where Troy's portrait is overwhelmed by some weird nostalgia for savagery. It is not actually a particularly good book, despite that wonderful beginning but an interesting picture of a certain period in history, the immediate post-colonial one.

In Death At The Dolphin Peregrine Jay writes and directs a play about Shakespeare, his little son Hamnet and the Dark Lady. It has always been a matter of some annoyance to me that the play does not exist. I should love to have seen it as I should have loved to have seen the weird and spectacular production, also directed by Jay, of Macbeth in Light Thickens. The tedious sub-expressionist melodrama Thus To Revisit in Opening Night, on the other hand, I can well do without.

It is a rare gift to be able to describe any other person's creativity and to make it so real and so vivid. Ngaio Marsh managed it but she remained, quite stubbornly, a writer of crime stories, mostly detective one, a couple of espionage ones and one straightforward thriller. Mr Symons did not approve.


  1. I feel the same way about Julian Symons. Even when I strongly disagree with him his views are always stimulating. I do disagree with him often but like you I find myself going back to BLOODY MURDER time and again.

    As for Marsh, I'm afraid I've read very little of her work. I'm not sure why since I've enjoyed what little I have read.

    And I agree about Adam Adam Dalgliesh - I get the feeling that making him a poet was an ill-advised attempt to make him more interesting but if anything it ends up making him less interesting. I'm afraid I'm not a fan of P. D. James (although she was certainly better than the absurdly overrated Ruth Rendell).

    1. I liked the early books by James a good deal but the later ones became bloated and uninteresting. It is very sad that publishers no longer impose the old discipline on their writers, especially the more successful ones. Like you I never quite understood why Dalgliesh should be a poet. It is also somewhat amusing that in any investigation the moment he appears someone recognizes his name as that of the poet and his latest book would have been read by one or more people. Most unlike reality as far as modern poetry is concerned.

    2. "It is very sad that publishers no longer impose the old discipline on their writers, especially the more successful ones."

      Do publishers even employ editors these days? It's even worse in the non-fiction field - many non-fiction books are merely a jumbled collection of seemingly random thoughts.

  2. Count me another one who feels the same about Julian Symons and his book.
    A very illuminating piece on Marsh, which I will return to as I work my way through the books. And please do food in crime novels - poisonous and non-poisonous. If only we could do research on which foods mask the taste of poisons best, but....

  3. Enjoyed this, and I agree with you about the beginning of Opening Night, which I read recently for blog post that Moira and I did on novels set in theatres. I am with you on Julian Symons, too.

  4. It is interesting to see how many readers of detective fiction find Symons's judgements unsatisfactory. Still, none of us can do without his book.

    1. "It is interesting to see how many readers of detective fiction find Symons's judgements unsatisfactory."

      I find his judgments on the genre as a whole to be often very unsatisfactory indeed. On the other hand his judgments on individual writers are often remarkably astute and very fair. That's what I admire about Symons - even though he didn't really approve of the golden age puzzle-plot form he was usually honest enough to admit the virtues of writers who worked within that form.

    2. Largely that is true but there are occasions when one wonders whether he had read the writers in question. Henry Wade whom he dismisses as a humdrum is one such example.