Ngaio Marsh – Last Ditch (1977)

Rickie Alleyn, son of Alleyn and Troy, has come to ‘the island’ (unnamed but
must be a Channel Island) to write a novel. He has an introduction from his
parents to the local gentry in the form of the mildly eccentric Pharamond
family, and falls in love with the elegant and exotic Julia, much to her
amusement. The locals on other hand are a suspicious bunch – his nosey
landlady and her shady husband; the disreputable ‘artist’ Sydney Jones,
living in a squalid hovel; Dulcie Harkness who is pregnant, father unknown
among a supposedly long-list of possibles; and her loony uncle, a Hellfire
revivalist who has founded his own sect. When Dulcie Harkness is found dead in a ditch, the apparent result of a riding accident, it is Rickie who
notices that a wire has been removed from the scene – he notifies his
father, who is on his way to the island in any event as a result of a
tip-off that it is a centre for drug dealing.

What can we find to say that is good about Last Ditch? It makes a change for
Marsh’s religious fanatic to be male rather than female. Cuthbert Harkness –
for that is his impressive name – is much the best thing about this book,
and is worthy of a better setting. But that is about all. This is lamentable
stuff. The plot is largely preposterous and Marsh’s attempts at thriller
writing – Ricky is kidnapped and held hostage – are both leaden and
unconvincing (since the reader knows no real harm is going to come to the
child of her protagonist). Julia Pharamond reveals that she is in fact
related to the Lampreys, but this reminder of Marsh’s glory days only serves to illustrate how far from her pinnacle this book is. As with others among
her late books this is for completists only – or those who have a particular
interest in books which introduce the children of long-standing
protagonists.

(July 2007)

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