Saturday, October 15, 2005

Ngaio Marsh

Ngaoi Marsh is one of my favourite favourites.

The book I've just finished is called Clutch of Constables. It features Marsh's Scotland Yard hero Roderick Alleyn, but mostly his wife, the artist Troy Alleyn. After an exhibition she decides to take a five-day pleasure cruise - a spur-of-the-moment decision after spotting a sign about a cancellation. Naturally, everyone on the boat is not as innocent as you'd think...

The story is opened by Alleyn, who is lecturing would-be detectives on a criminal called The Jampot. He tells us that he became personally involved in "the affair" because of his wife. The story then moves on to being told from Troy's perspective, featuring her letters to her husband as a way of keeping us informed of what Alleyn learned from her before turning up at the later crime scene. Throughout the book the narrative switches from the events at the time of their occurance and Alleyn's lecture. (Marsh often uses the relationship between Alleyn and Troy as a narrative tool. It also helps us, as readers, to feel closer to them as characters. )

What I like best about Marsh's books is how they place me in the time in which they were written. I get a wonderful sense of how people thought and reasoned, what was new and in and what was not. Clutch of Constables brings up the problem of rascism (called racialism, quaintly enough), but in a very 1960s English way - decent people treat the blacks decently and the blacks do their bit to avoid offending racially prejudiced people. Ludicrous as it may sound it does help you understand prevailing ideas of the time. A modern novel can never really portray the past that way. In a modern novel the present constantly intrudes. As an example I could mention The Alienist by Caleb Carr (a book worthy of it's own post, but it's not getting one today - maybe when I read the sequel). Set in New York of the 1890s, all Carr's heros are just that little bit too modern and open-minded to seem genuine. The same goes for Anne Perry's victorian detective stories.

This particular Marsh novel was, unfortunately, not so gripping a story. I found it a little too easy to get distracted. It may be the fact that it centres around one of those typically 60s style supervillains - international, quirky, extremely intelligent and a master of disguise. I never really buy those characters. But never mind. I'd recommend a Marsh anyday!

It's all in the heroes. I love Alleyn and Troy.

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