Friday, August 14, 2009

When in Rome

I've never read any of Ngaio Marsh's murder mysteries before, though I think I began one many years ago and abandoned it before I'd read more than a few pages. Can't remember why, but think it was because it seemed at the time a bit dry.

However, the other day I picked up When in Rome for a couple of dollars, and found it to be very good and an enjoyable read. It was published in 1970, so it's a bit dated - in fact I suspect it was a bit dated when it was written. (The word 'gay' appears frequently with its older meaning, for instance, but there are other indications that Marsh was already writing in a style that was on its way out.) Nevertheless, the Sun is said to have written: The finest writer in English of the pure, classical puzzle whodunnit, at the time, as the cover tells us.

What is noticeable about it is the excellent style. Even if you didn't think much of the mystery side of it (and it's not bad) the stylish writing has to impress. None of your rubbishy adjective-less, adverb-less modern approach to writing, with no descriptions of scene or place beyond a few overused words. That was what really struck me about the Mary Higgins Clark I read recently: how impoverished the language was. For example, someone's chair was 'comfortable' - what does that tell us? Nothing about the chair or the person. Characters were 'dressed up' by the author only in the sense that she told us that so and so changed into something that you would expect the character to change into for whatever it was he or she was doing. Marsh, on the other hand, seldom tells us about clothing unless it's important to what's going on.

The story has two angles to it: Inspector Alleyn (Marsh's regular hero/detective) is in Rome at the behest of Interpol to deal with a drug-smuggling ring. He 'happens upon' a tour party that's slightly unusual and gets himself involved - and is on hand to deal with two murders as a result. The characters are a stock group, but they have subtlety within that - for instance the lovers not only have twenty years in age separating them, they spend a good deal more time irritated with each other than might be the norm.

Marsh wrote in the days when writers wrote and audiences enjoyed their writing. Along with Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers, Marsh was classed as one of the four original "Queens of Crime"—female British crime writers who dominated the crime fiction genre in the Golden Age of the 1920s and 1930s. She published 32 detective novels in all, between 1934 and 1982.
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