Wednesday 7 October 2009

Ngaio Again

Further to my post in August about the collection edited by B.J. Rahn, I’ve found another relatively obscure book, this time dating back to 1996, which discusses the work of one of the most notable writers of the Golden Age. Murder Most Poetic: the mystery novels of Ngaio Marsh, is a fairly short but pithy survey by Mary S. Weinkauf.

Weinkauf makes the point that Marsh’s first love was always the theatre, but it was writing detective fiction that gave her financial freedom. (Those were the days, huh?) She makes a number of interesting points. For example: ‘Character is the greatest single factor in Alleyn’s investigation. It is not why one person murders another which fascinates him, but whose personality is most likely to turn homicidal – in the right conditions.’

This is an interesting perspective for a whodunit writer, although for me it is the ‘why’ that is crucial – in fact, the starting point for most of my fictions. I agree with Weinkauf that it is a flaw that ‘Marsh’s characters tend to kill others for the convenience of her plot.’

This is a book full of spoilers, which are nevertheless rather entertaining. For instance, one appendix lists ‘actors and others associated with the theatre who are killers in Marsh’s fiction’. Fourteen people are named. Another appendix lists references to Shakespeare’s plays in Marsh’s work. A whole chapter is devoted to ‘theatrical devices in Marsh’s fiction’.

All in all, this is a worthwhile study of a good crime writer. Weinkauf does not make excessive claims for Marsh, and recognises (I think this is unarguable) that Christie was much better at plotting, but highlights her strengths, and analyses her work with a care that encourages me – after a long gap - to read more Marsh in the future.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the news about that find. I agree with you, too, that the "why" of murder is always fascinating. That's what I base my novels on, too.

vegetableduck said...

If you go back and read Artists in Crime, say, you can see how good she can be at the mechanics of plot construction and clueing, all the while offering those witty character portraits. She's not as devious as Queen Christie, but she's often better than most others. And I still think Surfeit of Lampreys is a candidate for best written (and titled!) GA crime novel.

I can get a little tired of the snob element in her work (she was so fascinated by class), but I enjoy her best books still.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Margot. By the way, I've included your blog on my blogroll at long last.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Curt. I am fairly sure I never read those two, so I will study them with interest when I get the chance.