I have plenty of contemporary crime novels to hand that I am looking forward to reading, and yet these days I find myself more often turning to old friends. I’ve gone back to the novels of Ngaio Marsh and have just enjoyed Singing in the Shrouds, Scales of Justice, Clutch of Constables, Death and the Dancing Footman, and When in Rome. I have to say that she is not in my view the best of the GA writers. In Artists in Crime the middle stretch of the novel consists of interview after interview and she makes the mistake of having most of the characters be really repellent. Her attitudes towards homosexuality have not dated well. I was startled by that in Singing in the Shrouds. And she cannot hold a candle to Dame Agatha for plotting. Her strength lies in description and conjuring up atmosphere, and I think this owes something to her first career as a painter.
I’ve found myself thinking of when I first read her novels. It was the 1980s and I was a postgraduate student living in a bedsit in Birmingham. I can see it as I write this. There was a bed that unfolded from the wall, a small yellow galley kitchen, and a surprisingly cavernous bathroom. It was damp. I was tired of sharing student houses and wanted to live alone, but looking back, I can see that I was often lonely. I did have friends, but writing a Ph.D. thesis is a solitary occupation and it is easy to feel discouraged. Days could easily pass when I didn’t speak to anyone. Now that I think of it, I was far more isolated in those days before the internet and mobile phones than I am now in lockdown.
But then as now it was a comfort to escape into a familiar world with familiar characters and to know that at the end of the book all will be explained and order will be restored. I’ll be ready for more up-to-date reading soon, but just for now old friends are best.