Money in the Morgue by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy
Stella Duffy has performed an amazing feat, bringing Inspector Alleyn back to life after 35 years. Taking her starting point from three opening chapters left unfinished by Dame Ngaio Marsh in the 1940s, she has created a plot, solved a variety of crimes and given us a book every bit as good as any of the original Inspector Alleyn series.
Dame Ngaio had a lengthy career, with her first detective novel published in 1934 (‘A Man Lay Dead’) and her last in 1982 (‘Light Thickens’). Over those almost fifty years she stuck with Inspector Alleyn as her lead detective, unlike her contemporary, Agatha Christie, who switched back and forth between Poirot and Miss Marple. That would have made Alleyn about 90 when working on his last case, but this is fiction after all. It is a strange quirk of fate that has left Agatha Christie’s book still being remade as films, while those by Ngaio Marsh have languished. In her hay day she was one of only four writers to have a million copies of a book published on a single day. The others were George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells and Agatha Christie.
I am not sure why Ngaio Marsh’s works have not endured so well. Perhaps Inspector Alleyn was just not quirky enough, or perhaps he lacked the flaws we have come to expect from our modern detectives. Now he is back again, I hope that this book will help inspire a renewed interest in the works of Ngaio Marsh. She was a fascinating character, a writer and an artist and was heavily involved in bringing theatre to Christchurch and was a great lover of Shakespeare. There are numerous theatrical references in ‘Money in the Morgue’ and since the action takes place on Midsummer’s Night, there is an easy link to Shakespeare too. To discover more about Dame Ngaio and the theatre, there is an excellent chapter in ‘Bloomsbury South’ by Peter Simpson.
‘Money in the Morgue’ is set in New Zealand. Only two other Inspector Alleyn books were set here, with most being in England, as Alleyn was an Inspector at Scotland Yard. Stella Duffy has done a wonderful job of recreating the period, as well as the style of writing. Some may find the book a little old fashioned, but I have no problem with it and am glad that no attempt was made to ‘modernise’ the language. There was only one point, as Alleyn “demurred” for the third time in just over a page, that I really noticed anything that dated the dialogue.
I am not sure why the initial chapters were left unfinished and the idea abandoned. Perhaps the challenge that Dame Ngaio set herself was too hard. ‘Money in the Morgue’ is essentially a “locked room” crime case, in that all the action takes place in a small Canterbury hospital, temporarily cut off by a swollen river and a damaged bridge. No-one can leave the location, unless they tramp into the mountains. Nor can the local police come to help. One other stipulation that Dame Ngaio placed on herself was that all the action should take place on a single night. The crime, the discovery, the interviews of all the suspects and the solution to everything all have to take place by sunrise. It is no mean feat and it is carried off very well. There are enough twists and turns to keep the most avid crime readers satisfied. Just like the original books there is even a cast of characters and a map of where the action takes place.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
HarperCollins, RRP $29.99