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‘a delightful amateur sleuth novel with a well balanced mix of domestic and academic life and a strong sense of place.’ [Stage Fright]

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Why I don’t want to be in a Ngaio Marsh

I have finished my Ngaio Marsh binge. I have not read all of them – nor do I intend to – but I have read a lot, around twenty. And a couple of things stand out. One is that by the end of my marathon read, I had a pretty good idea who the culprit would be, not merely by deduction, but by my knowledge of the kind of person who would NOT have committed the crime in a Ngaio Marsh novel. In this she is quite unlike Agatha Christie. In a Christie novel, ANYONE might have done it, absolutely anyone. No-one is exempt – the love interest, the most likeable character, a child, even the narrator . . .

Another thing that occurs to me is that a Ngaio Marsh novel is not a good place to be if one is, well, shall we say, a woman of a certain age? And to be a spinster is to court disaster. No unmarried woman over about forty-five is allowed to be attractive or be interested in the opposite sex. That is considered grotesque: I am thinking here of novels like Overture to Death and Dead Water. As a widow perhaps I’d be OK. Or perhaps not. There is another type of older woman in Marsh’s novels: the woman who is losing her looks (mutton dressed as lamb) and has it in for younger, more attractive women. Mary Bellamy in False Scent is a splendid example of that.

Agatha Christie was certainly capable of poking fun at people, but she didn’t regard older women as beyond the pale. There is Miss Marple, for a start . . . and Christie was sympathetic, I feel, to the situation of the older single woman. To name the novel I have in mind would be a spoiler, but if I simply say ‘teashop’, those who have read it will know what I mean.

No, if I had to choose, I’d rather be in a novel by Agatha Christie. Even bearing in mind that I might turn out to be the murderer. But better than that, on reflection, would be a Dorothy L. Sayers novel. I am thinking of the academic women in Gaudy Night and the splendid Miss Climpson. Yes, if I had to be in a Golden Age Crime novel, that would be a much better bet.

6 Comments

  1. Margot Kinberg
    July 12, 2020

    What an interesting and thoughtful post, Christine! I could fault Sayers in some ways (the blatant anti-Semitism, for instance). But you’re absolutely right, I think, about her portrayal of women – including women of a certain age – in academia. I always liked that about her. And as for Christie, yes, anyone could be the killer. Her murderers cut across social class, gender, everything. And to me, that makes a novel all the more engaging. Even seasoned crime fiction readers find it a challenge to outhink Christie! And several of her no-longer-young female characters are quite sympathetic (I’m thinking of Honoria Bulstrode in Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance). As for Marsh, I understand your point about her treatment of unmarried female characters who are – er – mature. Hmm….good ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks. I wonder (I may very well be wrong about this) if it has anything to do with her theatre background? As I understand it (I am no expert in theatre!), it can be hard for women of a certain age to get certain kinds of roles. I find that typecasting, if that’s what it is, interesting!

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      July 12, 2020

      Thanks, Margot. Sadly, anti-semitism is all too common in Golden Age fiction, homophobia too. There is certainly some of that in Marsh. Glad you agree with me though about Sayers. It would be fun to be at that high table at Shrewsbury College. Interesting point about the theatre. I wonder . . . . But it is curious that Marsh was herself unmarried. You’d think she’d be more sympathetic towards her older female characters. A thing I like about Christie is that you do see women like Honoria Bulstode fulfilled in a career.

      Reply
  2. tracybham
    July 12, 2020

    This is a very nice and entertaining post, Christine. I love your comparison of Marsh to Christie.

    Back in 2003, between September – November, I read the first 15 novels by Ngaio Marsh. I remember enjoying them. That was about a year after I had started reading mysteries (and other fiction) again. I had stopped reading fiction for the ten years before that.

    Then in 2012 I read the 16th book (Night at the Vulcan) and although I enjoyed it also, I noted many more things I did not care for. I thought the first half was very good, leading up to the crime. Then the investigation of the crime slowed down the story for me. Anyway, mostly I am saying I find it amazing the change in how I view mysteries that I read now.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      July 12, 2020

      Thank you, Tracy! Yes, it is interesting thinking about changes in the way one reads. It made a big difference to me when I started writing fiction myself and became interested in seeing how a novel had been written in addition to enjoying the story.

      Reply
  3. moira @clothesinbooks
    July 12, 2020

    Oh I wish this post was twice as long, I loved it! I have just been reading False Scent because you did, and was having exactly the same thoughts: Mary Bellamy wasonly just 50 for heaven’s sake, and I know she was an actress, and so I suppose looks were important, but everyone acted as though she was an ancient grandma. And yes, the spinsters in other books get a raw deal. I had literally written in my notes ‘what HAS she got against older women?’ before reading this. And was going to calculate how old she was when she was writing so horribly about women of a certain age.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      July 15, 2020

      So glad you enjoyed this, Moira! False Scent came out in 1960, so NM must have been 65! There IS a splendid mature woman in Singing in the Shrouds, but she is very much the exception. There is a very silly and annoying spinster in A Clutch of Constables and that is much more typical. Looking forward to seeing what you come up with for Mary Bellamy’s party dress.

      Reply

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