Ngaio Marsh – Dead Water (1964)

Wally Trehern, a child with learning difficulties as we would say today,
sees a ‘Green Lady’ who instructs him to wash his warty hands in a pool in
his native village of Portcarrow. The warts ‘miraculously’ disappear. When
the story is picked up by a journalist Portcarrow is transformed into a
major tourist attraction, with hoards of those seeking ‘cures’ descending
upon the village, thereby transforming the fortunes of the village pub which
becomes an hotel, the local nursing home, even the Vicar, but above all a
Miss Cost, who’s asthma has also been ‘cured’ by the pool, who opens a shop
dedicated to the sale of ‘Green Lady’ related paraphernalia and organises a
festival on the anniversary of Wally’s ‘cure’. Two years later the village, or that part of it on which the pool lies (separated from the mainland by a
tidal causeway) changes ownership and the new owner Miss Emily Pride, a
grande dame who happens to be Alleyn’s old French tutor, determines that the
commercial exploitation of the pool shall cease. She visits the village,
much to Alleyn’s consternation, at the time of the festival despite having
received threatening letters. When she has arrived a number of incidents
directed at her occur. But when a body is found at the pool it turns out to
be that of Miss Cost.

This book, it will be perceived, shows Marsh fishing in the strange waters
which she has previously visited in, for instance, Death in Ecstasy – but
she never ventures very far down what might be termed the supernatural path
(as Christie for instance might do) ; the ‘miraculous’ element is under
pretty tight control, rather it is the weirdness in which she delights. The
central mystery is given added spice by the old stand-by – a debatable
victim: was it Miss Cost who was the intended target, or as she was killed
by a stone thrown from above and she had an umbrella, was it Miss Emily
Pride? This strategy always allows the writer to engage in more misdirection
and cover a wider range of suspects. At the heart of the book in addition is
the contrast between Miss Cost and Miss Pride. The latter is an object of
much admiration from both Marsh, Alleyn and the young heroine (yet another
New Zealander – Jenny Williams); while her obvious sin is that of her
surname, she is essentially approved of (and may be compared to Alice
Mardian in Off with His Head ). Miss Cost on the other hand is part of a
much longer list of sex-obsessed spinsters who appear in Marsh – the
archetype and finest being found in Overture to Death. Miss Pride herself
is Marsh’s mouthpiece ‘Cost, was I judged, a spiteful woman. It is a not
unusual phenomenon among spinsters of Cost’s years and class. I am glad to
say I was not conscious, at her age, of any such emotion. My sister
Fanny…used to say I was devoid of the mating instinct’. Overt sexuality in
women, unless directed at one very legitimate object, is usually an object
of suspicion in Marsh – it is morally condemned in younger women and in
older leads to neurosis at least – Marsh always allows pity for the latter
however as here with Miss Cost. This is a tricky subject and cannot be
covered in a short review. Dead Water is certainly one of the books which
would need to be considered when examining the subject however. Whilst not
her finest work the basic situation is memorable and the Misses Cost and
Pride provide a fascinating study.

(June 2007)