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Ngaio Marsh is one of the Queens of Crime, along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Born in New Zealand in 1899, she spent a great deal of time reviving the publics interest in theatre, for which she became a Dame. Her interest in the arts, although was one of the reasons she became so popular in the first place, is perversely perhaps why she is no longer as well-known the language that she uses is quite literary and colloquial at the same time, which is not easy to read in this day and age.
Superintendent Alleyn is on a mission to find a mass murderer, art and drug dealer and master of disguise, known as Foljambe. His wife, artist Troy, is left alone with time on her hands and decides to go on a canal cruise through Constable country. She is joined on the cruise by a series of rather eccentric tourists, one of whom, Hazel Rickerby-Carrick, particularly latches on to Troys company. Then, one day, just as she is about to tell Troy of something that has obviously frightened her, she suddenly goes missing.
The local police, who suspect that something untoward is going on on the barge, keep an eye on things, but it is not until Miss Rickerby-Carricks body is found floating in the canal that everyone realises there is a real problem. What was it that had scared Miss Rickerby-Carrick so much? And what is going on aboard the barge? Superintendent Alleyn comes to the rescue!
Troy Alleyn has a much greater role in this book than her husband, which actually makes this book one of Marshs stronger ones. Troy is an artist, intellectually very clever, and has a pleasant manner about her, helping her to make friends while able to make judgements about people quickly and accurately. I find her a much more likeable character than her husband, who is quite a bland character, about whom we find out very little throughout the whole Alleyn series.
Marsh has a habit of making the suspects in her books larger than life and this one is no exception. Miss Rickerby-Carrick is a dippy spinster who drives everyone mad with her constant whittering, the Hewson brother and sister are very American and are crazy about antiques, Caley Bard is an eccentric butterfly hunter, Reverend Lazenby doesnt seem like a real cleric, Stanley Pollock is racist and Dr Natouche is (shock horror) black! Marshs theatricism (dont think thats a real word, but you know what I mean) comes out strongly in these characters it seems she wants to make caricatures of them. She just about gets away with it any more eccentric and they would have been far too over the top.
As far as Ngaio Marshs books go, I think this is probably the best Ive read, as Ive already mentioned, simply because it features Troy Alleyn rather than her husband and for me this makes it far more human. The plot too seems stronger; I certainly found it gripping and even my boyfriend, who usually reads my books with the sole purpose of telling me what rubbish I read, read this and enjoyed it.
Without a doubt, her choice of language is what makes Ngaio Marshs books less popular than Agatha Christies. I recently watched a programme about Agatha Christies work which suggested that the reason her books were so popular was because of the simplicity of the language; for example, using said rather than explained or responded or exclaimed. Marshs language, however, is much more flowery and seems somewhat stilted and correct, with colloquialisms from the time thrown in readily. As such, it is alien to readers of today.
The development of the plot is excellent. The story is told by Alleyn, who is attending a conference overseas after the event, and introduces each chapter by telling his students the background about Foljambe. The story then turns to Troy, tells the story through her own eyes, partly by letter. In this way, we know straightaway who the criminal is and that he must be on the barge with Troy, but we dont know more than that. This kept me intrigued from the beginning and although I suspected who the criminal was quite early on, it was pure guesswork rather than the plot had holes.
This is definitely a book for fans of crime fiction, particularly those that enjoy Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and the like. Im going to highly recommend it, particularly if you havent read any books by this author before; if you can get over the fact that the language is old-fashioned, its a darn good read.
It is available from play.com for £5.49, although I bought mine as part of a 3 for ₤1 deal from a charity shop bargain. The most recently published version (2000) is published by HarperCollins and has 256 pages. ISBN: 0006512593
A classic Ngaio Marsh novel which features blood-curdling murders in the confines of a riverboat, the Zodiac, cruising through Constable country. 'He looks upon the murders that he did in fact perform as tiresome and regrettable necessities,' reflected Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn on the international crook known as 'the Jampot'. But it was Alleyn's wife Troy who knew 'the Jampot' best: she had shared close quarters with him on the tiny pleasure steamer Zodiac on a cruise along the peaceful rivers of 'Constable country'. And it was she who knew something was badly wrong even before Alleyn was called in to solve the two murders on board.