I’ve started an occasional re-reading of Ngaio Marsh’s thirty-two detective novels and am enjoying them enormously.
The Nursing Home Murder, published in 1935, was Marsh’s third crime novel. It’s interesting to see what settings a crime writer chose when they were starting out. Her first novel, A Man Lay Dead used the classic Golden Age country house party. The second, Enter A Murderer takes place in her beloved theatre-land. The Nursing Home Murder – well the clue’s in the name – is set around a private London hospital run by an eminent surgeon.
The victim is the Home Secretary who dies inexplicably, shortly after a successful operation for peritonitis. At least three people among the medical staff had a motive for murder.
Although written first, this novel reminds me somewhat of a great favourite, Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger (published in 1944) and also P.D James’s A Mind To Murder, written in 1963 and set in a London clinic. We get a closed circle of suspects – in this case around the operating table – and a dramatic build-up of tension. A patient at the mercy of masked and gowned figures, menace in what should be a place of safety, strong lights and shadows, scalpels, syringes, cylinders and deadly intent.
This novel was dramatized in The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries first shown on the BBC in 1996 . Ngaio Marsh’s sleuth, Detective Inspector Roderick (Rory) Alleyn was played by Patrick Malahide. It has been said that he was mis-cast but not by us. He’s a quietly compelling actor who gave a wonderful performance, bringing out the sensitivity beneath Alleyn’s slightly facetious manner.
In this novel – before he meets his great love Agatha Troy – Alleyn cuts a curiously lonely figure; eating solitary dinners in restaurants or his bachelor flat, attended by an elderly Russian manservant. His ‘unofficial Watson’ (Alleyn’s words) is the eager young journalist Nigel Bathgate, who disappears from later novels.
Though in the upper-class mould of Lord Peter Wimsey and Mr. Albert Campion; unlike them, Alleyn is a working policeman, a Scotland Yard detective. The reader is given interesting glimpses of his daily routine when he isn’t involved with murder.
The drama is faithful to the novel except in two important instances. The period was changed to be immediately post-war. Perhaps this isn’t such a great liberty when you recall that like Agatha Christie, Marsh was writing over several decades. For a name synonymous with the Golden Age, it’s surprising to recall that her last novel was published in 1982. However the change in decade meant that in a sub-plot, communist anarchists were changed to Zionists, which I don’t think worked so well.
Part of the interest in period detective novels is that social mores have changed so much. Writers were spoilt for choice with motives that simply no longer matter. Ngaio Marsh is perhaps a little less fashionable now than Christie, Allingham and Sayers – often known as the four ‘Queens of the Golden Age.’ I think her novels are up there with the best, intricately plotted, elegant, witty and fun. She was very good at the psychology of her times. The motive in The Nursing Home Murder is unusual and chilling.
Ngaio Marsh was also skilled at vivid characterisation, from the very likeable Alleyn and Inspector Fox ( superbly played by William Simons); to the quirky suspects of West End theatre, society, the art world and ordinary working people. All shades of pre-war London seen through the eyes of an outsider from New Zealand. She did some great classic village mysteries too.
Ngaio Marsh is not usually thought of as a great writer of place. In common with most inter-war writing, her descriptions are sparing. Though she could certainly write atmosphere when she liked. I’ll finish with this evocative glimpse of London by night.
“The river, busy with its night traffic, had an air of being apart and profoundly absorbed. There were the wet black shadows, broken lights, and the dark, hurried flow of the Thames towards the sea. London’s water-world was about its nightly business. The roar of the streets became unimportant and remote down here, within sound of shipping sirens and the cold lap of deep water against stone.”