26 November 2009

Forgotten Book? BLACK AS HE'S PAINTED, Ngaio Marsh

This week's contribution to Pattinase's Friday's Forgotten Books.

According to my records, I read this on Australia Day (26th January) in 1977.

For those not familiar with her, Dame Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) was a New Zealand crime fiction writer who has been compared with the greats: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. During her celebrated fifty-year career, Marsh was made a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, named Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire, won numerous prestigious awards and penned 32 mystery novels.

Current New Zealand writer Vanda Symon has thrown down a challenge to read Ngaio Marsh's books in order - rather similar to my own Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.

Therein lies the problem. While my local library still has a couple of copies of BLACK AS HE'S PAINTED on their shelves, just recently, when oz_mystery_readers chose another Marsh title, TIED UP IN TINSEL, as its "Christmas read", we unfortunately found that copies were not readily available. Our libraries had ditched them. We probably could have got them at a used book store, and Amazon lists all 32 books and says they are available second hand at remarkably low prices.

So friends, here's an author for you to hunt down. If you enjoy the classic cozies, then you will likely enjoy one of these. They still hold up well for modern readers, as you can see from my two mini-reviews below.

A MAN LAY DEAD (1934), my rating 4.3.
This is Ngaio Marsh's debut novel, a classic country house party murder mystery, where the reader is tempted to map the location of all of the characters at the location of the murder. Nigel Bathgate, with his cousin Charles Rankin, is attending his first houseparty at Frampton. He has heard these houseparties hosted by Sir Hubert Handesley are both "original" and unpretentious. There will seven or eight guests, and, upon arrival, he learns that the main event will be a Murder. Sir Hubert has his own rules for the Murder Game, and eventually a murder there is, but not the theatrically staged one they have anticipated.
This is not Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn's first murder case, although it is Ngaio Marsh's first novel. Alleyn is already a seasoned detective, with a reputation for thorough and careful sleuthing. His reputation precedes him. He arrives at Frampton from Scotland Yard the morning after the murder. The body has already been moved, and the local constabulary and the police doctor are already in attendance.
In essence what Marsh does in this first novel is establish some of the characteristics which will become Alleyn's "signature" in subsequent novels.

COLOUR SCHEME (1943), my rating 4.2.
Believed by some to be her best novel, this classic by Ngaio Marsh is set in New Zealand during World War 2. Someone is assisting Germans to sink British ships off the coast of New Zealand and flashing lights on a nearby mountain are thought to be an enemy agent signalling a German boat or submarine. The setting is a run-down spa with boiling mud pools in the North Island near a Maori pa. This is an almost theatrical novel. Marsh makes extensive use of her knowledge of Maori customs and of course there is a murder, a victim lured into a boiling pool. Enter Roderick Alleyn on loan to the NZ government, searching for enemy agents.

What about you - have you read any Ngaio Marsh? If so, which is your favourite title? If not, will you look for some?


Anonymous said...

Kerrie - Thanks for highlighting Ngaio Marsh. I've never read Black as He's Painted , although I wish I could. I've joined the Marsh I have read; A Surfet of Lampreysis a good one, I think. It's got lots of eccentric characters and a sense of humor, as well as a solid plot.

Deb said...

I can't remember the name, but the one where an artist's model is murdered--she's supposed to recline on a fur (or perhaps satin) blanket of some sort and is impaled on a hidden knife. This may the one where Alleyn meets his wife, Agatha Troy.

You have to think Marsh was playing hommage to Christie by naming her detective's wife Agatha.

I like a lot of Marsh's work--but I don't know how much of it is still in print. She's not as inventive as Christie (who is?), but I think she's better than Allingham or Sayers (and I like both of them too).

Dorte H said...

I prefer Christie and Sayers over Marsh, but when I come across her works in second-hand shops, I buy them so I own half a dozen or more.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Oh, I truly had forgotten about Marsh. I did read and enjoy many of her books years ago. Thanks for this reminder.

Evan Lewis said...

Never paid much attention to Marsh. This is a nice intro.
You have reading records back to 1977? Wish I'd though of that then.

Richard Robinson said...

I'm with Dorte and Evan - never cared much for Marsh. After trying one or two went back to Allingham, Christie, Sayers, and forward to P.D. James and others.

Nice introductory post, though, thank you!

George said...

I've read several mysteries by Ngaio March. Currently, LIGHT THICKENS is sitting on top of my Read Real Soon stack. Your review pushed it to the top!

Vanda Symon said...

I have Tied up in Tinsel sitting as yet unread on my shelves - I'll have to crack into it so I can review it for your meme!

My Ngaio reading got a little hampered by an avalanche of other books I had to read this year, so my challenge is a little further behind than I would like, but it will be a bit quieter after Christmas, so I can have a Ngaio-fest.

Les Blatt said...

I've always been a fan of Ngaio Marsh. I agree with the poster who cited A Surfeit of Lampreys, which is known as Death of a Peer in the U.S. It's one of her best. I would also recommend A Clutch of Constables, which is more about Alleyn's wife, Troy, than it is about Alleyn himself. All of them are worth reading, however - I've reviewed several Marsh novels at www.classicmysteries.net.

Lulu said...

My favorite Marsh books are the same as Les Blatt, Death of Peery and Clutch of Constables. Does anyone recall the title of the one Deb talks about? I would like to reread. I do have most of hers. Was Black as He's Painted have an alternate title?


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