RogerBW's Blog

Dead Water, Ngaio Marsh 02 October 2017

1964 classic English detective fiction; twenty-third of Marsh's novels of Inspector Roderick Alleyn. An island village gets rich off tourism following the "miracle cure" that happened at its spring, but the new owner of the island plans to shut all that down. Murder ensues.

Like many of Marsh's books I've read recently, this sits awkwardly between its actual time and the 1930s. Mostly it's a 1930s plot, but the flocking tourists and the plastic tat are a 1960s addition glued onto the side.

The usual Marsh problems are here: yes, yes, the village idiot child has petit mal epilepsy because those are things that always go together; and being a single woman over forty is clearly its own sort of mental illness.

"With some it takes the form of religious activities. Others go all-out for dumb animals. Mrs. Nankivell herself, although a very level-headed lady, worked it off in cats, which have in the course of nature simmered down to two. Neuters, both."

And the reader is asked to assume that the new owner, a lady who taught Alleyn French back in his Diplomatic Service days, is entirely within her rights to want to shut down the only thing the village has going for it, because it offends her (and clearly Marsh's) sense of propriety. Alleyn likes her, so she must be a Good Thing.

"Isn't it extraordinary? She doesn't present any of the classic features. She is not faded or pretty; nor, as far as I've noticed, does she smell of lavender. She's by no means gentle or sweet, and yet she doesn't exude salty common sense. She is, without a shadow of doubt, a pigheaded, arrogant old thing.

As for the actual plot, it unfortunately recapitulates what appears to have been one of Marsh's preferred patterns (she's used it at least twice before); if one notices a few specific things, and they're flagged reasonably well, then the mere absence of inquiry in a particular direction is a dead giveaway that it'll be important later.

Even then, Marsh cheats, when Alleyn notices something while looking down from the scene of the crime:

He was very still for a moment. Then he called to Fox, who joined him.

"Do you see what I see?" he asked.

Fox placidly related what he saw.

I'm still not completely sure what that was, though I can make a guess.

All the people are either degenerate Mummerzet yokels or "proper" vaguely-upper-class types (even if they're running the pub). There's an action sequence near the end that feels frankly forced, as if Marsh realised that nothing terribly exciting had happened and perhaps it ought to. It's not that anything is particularly wrong here, but nor does it ever manage to rise above the more-or-less all right.

Some of Alleyn's investigative technique is very well-observed, but overall this is not a good introduction to Marsh, I think. Followed by Death at the Dolphin.

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