Ngaio Marsh happens to be one of the few writers whom I have approached with any degree of system in terms of reviewing. This is not to say that I have reviewed all her books by any means, but I do have reasonably strong recollections of the vast majority which enables me to produce a ranking list – something of which I am inordinately fond. In addition this is the place to note that I have been lucky enough to receive the the insights of R.T.Raichev (whose wonderful latest entry in the Antonia Darcy/Hugh Payne series The Little Victim I have reviewed at http://www.reviewingtheevidence.com/review.html?id=8000 ) – any notes which appear attributed to RR are extrapolated from his comments.

My own ranking of Marsh’s work is as follows…

Great

  • Death in a White Tie
  • Overture to Death
  • Surfeit of Lampreys
  • Death and the Dancing Footman
  • Scales of Justice
  • Off With His Head
  • False Scent

Very Good

  • Final Curtain
  • Hand in Glove
  • Dead Water
  • Opening Night
  • Tied up in Tinsel
  • Clutch of Constables

Good

  • Artists in Crime
  • Colour Scheme
  • Died in the Wool
  • Swing, Brother, Swing
  • Black as he’s Painted
  • Grave Mistake
  • Singing in the Shrouds

Average

  • Vintage Murder

Below Average

  • Enter A Murderer
  • Death at the Bar
  • Death at the Dolphin

Bad

  • A Man Lay Dead
  • The Nursing Home Murder
  • Death in Ecstasy
  • Last Ditch
  • Light Thickens

No Recollection

  • Spinsters in Jeopardy
  • When in Rome
  • Photo Finish

This is an attempt at a ranking in terms of quality rather than my personal favourites – in terms of the latter False Scent would probably not make the top category for reasons explained in my review. In terms of the ‘Bad’ category these fall either at the very beginning or the very end of Marsh’s long career. Her most brilliant period was between 1938 and 1942 when she produced White Tie, Overture, Lampreys and Dancing Footman, with only Death At The Bar being, for me, a miss. The best of all (and my favourite) is Death in a White Tie; of which, somewhat improbably, Dashiell Hammett said ‘Ngaio Marsh’s Death in a White Tie is the best detective story I have ever read…’.

It is also RR’s favourite. Thereafter there is come convergence and some divergence in our views. He writes…

‘I hate Last Ditch. Light Thickens is of curiosity value only. I hate Off with His Head — perhaps the only Marsh I haven’t re-read. I don’t like Death at the Bar either. Vintage Murder, Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool ditto. Thumbs down for Singing in the Shrouds too — though I like the prissy schoolmaster killer. I liked Constables the first time I read it, but not the second time. Swing Brother I liked up to a point. Photo Finish not really. My favourite Marshes: Scales, Opening, Lampreys, Final, Spinsters, Hand, Grave, When in Rome — plus the ones mentioned above.’

I obviously need to re-read (if I have ever read them – I just have no recollection!) Spinsters and When in Rome.

Of course my own classifications would be highly likely to change were I to re-read the books!

Marsh is the most under-rated of the Four Queens (Allingham, Christie and Sayers being of course the other three). In identifying her great strengths one tends, inevitably, to go to those areas in which she is different and stronger then her peers. I would pick out especially…

  1. Her treatment and use of sexuality. Here there is absolutely no question that she is just plain better than any of the other three. While Allingham and Sayers both treat of the love-lives of their protagonists, in general there is not much sex in either their books or Christie’s. There is quite a lot in Marsh. She has a variety of approaches and it can be very ugly. In this way she is much the most modern of the four.
  2. Her humour. While both Allingham and indeed Christie can be comic on occasion, Marsh has an eye for the fantastic, the grotesque, which is not present in the others – this can be used as either a source of humour or indeed of near-horror – Off With His Head is an example where the two are mixed. On other occasions she employs a comedy of manners – often making use of her outsider’s eye (sometimes almost auto-biographically with her colonial ingenues as in Lampreys or Opening Night).

Sex and humour – being strong in those areas is quite a recommendation!

In conversation about Grave Mistake RR asked ‘Doesn’t Marsh have other unmarried but sensible women of a certain age in her fiction?’ and later commented…’There is a sensible woman of a certain age in both Footman (Royal’s cousin?)  and Death at the Bar — both Hons — can’t remember their names.’

And he also brilliantly pointed out ‘Marsh loved making the murderer the character of least social acceptability. Check out the others — Mrs Cartarette in Scales, the chauffeur (Giggle) and the maid (Tinkerton) in Lampreys, Cressida Tottenham (manservant’s daughter suffering from folie de grandeur — she actually kills her father, Mount!) — all great fun.’

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