Corpses, clues and Kiwis in Ngaio Marsh’s posthumous novel

24 March 2018

9:00 AM

24 March 2018

9:00 AM

Publishing loves a brand. Few authors of fiction create characters who reach this semi-divine status, but when they do, even death cannot part them from their fortunate publishers. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Bertie Wooster and James Bond are among those who have survived their creators’ deaths, thanks to the assistance of living authors.

Now Roderick Alleyn, the ineffably posh Scotland Yard detective created by Dame Ngaio Marsh, returns for a posthumous outing with the help of Stella Duffy, herself a distinguished crime writer. It’s an inspired pairing — Duffy, like Marsh, is a New Zealander with a professional interest in the theatre. Marsh’s direct contribution to the book was small but significant: she had written three short chapters and made some sketchy notes on how the story might develop before she abandoned the project.

The story is set in the remote Canterbury plains of her native New Zealand during the second world war. Alleyn is there on official business, searching for a spy ring sending information to the Japanese. He’s working undercover in an isolated hospital, crowded with civilian and military patients. On a midsummer evening, the cantankerous Mr Glossop arrives with the Government payroll. When his van breaks down and he’s forced to spend the night, he lodges the money in Matron’s safe.

During the night, however, a storm breaks; the money is stolen, and murder is done. Alleyn is forced to emerge from his anonymity and sort out the mess. There’s a desperate urgency to his investigation: for reasons to do with the spy ring, he has to solve the case overnight. His job is further complicated by the various intrigues that the staff and patients are carrying on.

Alleyn has no resources, and his authority is uncertain. To make matters worse, this is New Zealand, where his gentlemanly bearing is, if anything, rather a drawback. (Ngaio Marsh and her characters are generally very impressed by his resemblance to a Spanish grandee and by the fact that he’s the younger son of a baronet. But Stella Duffy is made of sterner stuff.)

Duffy, like Marsh herself, is very good at spare but effective characterisation; she knows the games people play and how they speak to each other. She has a dramatist’s grasp of structure. Best of all, she has the wartime New Zealand setting, which becomes almost a character in its own right. She captures not only the time and place but the unsettling ambiguities of New Zealand’s perspectives on both the war and the ‘Mother Country’.

Between them, Marsh and Duffy have created A Midsummer Night’s Dream with corpses, clues and Kiwi accents. There are star-crossed lovers, rude mechanicals, complicated disguises and misunderstandings, and even a play within a play (when Alleyn stages a reconstruction of the crime). Alleyn, who has a tendency to quote Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, is well aware of this himself.

Money in the Morgue invites us to relish its artificiality and somehow, at the same time, transcends it. As one character, a traumatised doctor, remarks: ‘There is a great deal in New Zealand that is built on illusion and much of it ingenious indeed.’ Amen to that.

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