Empress of crime

Ngaio Marsh tends to be the name who now gets forgotten from the four Grandes dames of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which also included Christie, Sayers and Allingham. They're all very different, Marsh had one of the longest careers with her first novel published in 1934, and her last in '82. Like Christie, who also had a long career, she was a prolific writer, publishing 32 detective novels all featuring Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, along with a plethora of short stories, a few other novels, and several volumes of autobiography.

Overture to death is number 8 in the canon, and was first published in 1939. It is a superb example of a classic police procedural. You may guess the murderer fairly early on, but that takes nothing away from the skill of the writing; and the clever way in which Alleyn pieces the clues together to come to his conclusion. Marsh is adept at laying out minute clues along the way, and then bringing them devastatingly together to a classy finish.

Overture's a bit of a chilling tale. A small boy's practical joke goes devastatingly wrong, when a local gossip and pillar of society, is brutally murdered. It appears that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Alleyn is unconvinced.

I loved this novel. It's a reminder of how good crime fiction can be in the hands of a brilliant writer. Alleyn, Marsh's hero, is a likeable character - surely an early prototype for P.D. James' Adam Dalgleish. The background to the novel set against an amateur theatrical production is an area in which Marsh felt very comfortable (she was given her knighthood for services to theatre in New Zealand); and this is very obvious in the novel.

It's great fun, cleverly constructed, some great characters even if they are caricatures; and plotting to die for - as is entirely appropriate for a great slice of detective fiction. As fine a classic police procedural as you could hope to read. Let's hear it for Dame Ngaio Marsh.


Popular Posts