In many ways, Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries follow the rules of detective fiction as prescribed by S. S. Van Dine in 1928. These rules emphasize the genre’s intellectual purity: the puzzle, the clues, and the solution. They insist on fairness for the reader: The author must not indulge himself with hidden clues, professional criminals, spies, or secret cults. No mere trickery should sully the game between the author and the reader. There is an implicit emphasis on the classical dramatic unities of time, place, and action. In A Man Lay Dead, her first novel, Marsh adheres to these strictures with spare character and place description, well-planted but subtle clues to the murderer’s motives and identity, and a quick solution. On the strength of this novel and the several that followed, one critic referred to her as “the finest writer in England of the pure, classical puzzle whodunit.” Yet to insist on her books as “pure” is misleading. By the time she had written three novels, she was challenging some of Van Dine’s most sacred tenets—not his doctrine of fairness and logical deduction but his demand for simplicity in all but plot. Her challenge succeeded in cementing her reputation as a novelist without sacrificing her commitment to detective fiction. She so successfully joined the elements of character and tone with the detective yarn that she provides a link between the older traditions of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and the newer writings of Agatha Christie.
A Man Lay Dead
In her first six novels, Marsh introduced characters and settings to which she would return with more sophistication later. Her murders nearly always occur in some sort of theater in front of witnesses. Among the witnesses and suspects are her artistic characters, a few mysterious foreigners, the occasional fanatic, and usually one or two pairs of lovers. Their observations are shaped into the solution by Marsh’s detective, Roderick Alleyn, of Scotland Yard. It is his character that unites these disparate people and places. Marsh introduces Alleyn through the eyes of Angela North in A Man Lay Dead:Alleyn did not resemble a plain-clothes policemen, she felt sure, nor was he in the romantic manner—white-faced and gimlet-eyed. He looked like one of her Uncle Hubert’s friends, the sort they knew would “do” for house-parties.
He is the younger son of a peer, educated at Oxford, courteous, but always somewhat detached. Alleyn’s fastidious nature, combined with his facetious wit, confuses those who expect either a foppish amateur or the plodding copper. Marsh aimed at creating a normal man whose personality never cloyed or bored his creator.
Alleyn also possesses a dry, almost peculiar sense of humor about his work. In Enter a Murderer (1935), he leaves headquarters remarking “Am I tidy? . . . It looks so bad not to be tidy for an arrest.” Earlier, he had described himself as feeling “self-conscious” about asking suspects for fingerprints. Despite Jessica Mann’s contention in Deadlier than the Male: Why Are Respectable English Women So Good at Murder? (1981) that Alleyn does not change or develop in the thirty-two novels, Marsh gradually introduces different aspects of his personality. In Artists in Crime (1938), Alleyn falls in love and is refused, though not absolutely, but in Death in a White Tie (1938), he has won the hand of Agatha Troy, a famous painter. By 1953, in Spinsters in Jeopardy, the couple has a son, Ricky. Troy and Ricky occasionally embroil Alleyn in mysteries that arise in the course of their careers or lives. Their presence assists Marsh in moving Alleyn into the murder scene. Amateurs might happen on crime with rather appalling frequency, but a professional police officer must be summoned.
Death in a White Tie
In Death in a White Tie, Alleyn’s character and pedigree are assured. This novel is pivotal in Marsh’s development of character description and social analysis. She quietly opens the drawing-room door onto the secrets, misery, and shallowness of those involved in “the season” in London. Lady Alleyn, the mother of the detective, and Agatha Troy attend the debutante parties, including a memorable one at which a popular older gentleman, Lord Robert, who is known by the improbable nickname “Bunchy” and the Dickensian last name, Gospell, is murdered. Murder is not the worst of it; blackmail, bastardy, adultery, bad debts, and many other ills beset these social darlings. As Bunchy himself ruminates,he suddenly felt as if an intruder had thrust open all the windows of [his] neat little world and let in a flood of uncompromising light. In this cruel light he saw...
(The entire section is 1939 words.)