‘Since this trouble with my back, I’ve read all the detective stories there ever were, I should think,’ a character says in Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House. ‘Nothing else seems to pass the time away so quick.’ My back is OK but I’ve spent the last 15 months reading detective fiction, most of it written between the late 1920s and the mid-1950s, an extended survey of the genre’s ‘golden age’. I’ve read a huge number of these novels over the years, so when I was asked to write about Ngaio Marsh I blithely agreed, not realising that I’d never actually read any of her books. I was convinced I had, but it soon turned out I’d only read part of one when I was 12 or 13; I’d merely registered some of the titles on the spines of the green Penguin books on my parents’ shelves. This came as a shock – I’m still not sure why Marsh escaped me then, except that she may have seemed in some mysterious way more of a grown-up taste than Dorothy L. Sayers or Christie – but being a completist I settled down last year to read all of her books, in chronological order. And then I read or reread two hundred or so by other writers to provide context. In 1957, the psychoanalyst Charles Rycroft described reading detective stories as ‘in a way the opposite of having psychoanalytic treatment. The motive underlying one is to deny insight and underlying the other is to gain it.’ This might be true of the characters inside the books, but it certainly isn’t true of the experience of reading them. If insight is considered as insight into oneself, there isn’t much of it. Detective fiction probably won’t help us find out who we are, but it definitely provides insight into the world outside, the world that forms the books.
Writing about Christie in the LRB (20 December 2018), John Lanchester argued that part of the reason she’s still vastly more read than her contemporaries is that she was less invested in her subjects, and therefore less likely to break ‘the containment field of the detective genre’ by making ideological points that jar on modern sensibilities, attracting a ‘readerly dissent’. This relies on a particular experience of reading, where the spell cast by the narrative keeps you from thinking about anything except the mystery itself. In those circumstances anything that breaks the spell is annoying, especially if it means you have to think about outdated social attitudes or become too conscious of the writer’s limited outlook. But what if that’s not the only way to read them? What if the books hold in them more than they can cope with aesthetically? They may not be entirely successful as novels, but all sorts of questions arise.
Detective stories contain a far greater number of question marks than most other novels, and a greater number of lies and evasions in response to the questions. The pleasure of reading detective stories isn’t just, or even mainly, to do with getting the right answer to the primary question of whodunnit – there are other questions beside that one. As is well-known, there was a huge new interest after 1918 in puzzles, crosswords, jigsaws, word games, board games like Monopoly, quizzes and suchlike, in parallel with the surge in popularity of detective fiction. It’s significant that the emphasis on murder as an intellectual puzzle rather than a tragic, distressing or realistic act of violence emerged in the wake of the First World War, and became increasingly self-referential during and immediately after the Second. But it’s not the puzzle-solving that makes me read detective novels, though it provides much of the narrative momentum. It’s something else, something related to melodrama, and reflected in the theatricality, literal or metaphorical, of the detective fiction of the time, which spilled over into works like Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935).
One reason for the popularity of the genre was the literal disappearance of so many people between 1914 and 1918: it was a cultural attempt to domesticate death on that almost incomprehensible scale. Another reason was the unprecedented series of changes in income, class status and the position of women, uncertainties that raised questions about English society and the place of the individual, especially the middle-class individual, within it. The characters in detective novels display differing degrees of nostalgia, hero-worship, uncertainty, prejudice and self-awareness. A restricted setting, such as a big house, intensifies these conflicting pressures. (Alison Light has said that Christie’s novels can be read as ‘one huge advertisement of the murderousness of English social life and of the desperate need to convert to pleasure all those anxieties which an existence like that of the postwar middle classes could produce’.) There’s another kind of questioning at work in the reading, too, which encourages us to read between the lines.
Everybody is acting a part. ‘Everybody has something to conceal,’ Sam Spade tells the D.A. in The Maltese Falcon. That’s the principle of the detective story, the idea that (in the words of Freeman Wills Crofts’s detective, the stolid Inspector French) ‘there’s always something behind everything.’ The thing about the something behind everything is that it’s not easy to see what it is. Which is the reason that, in the wake of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, a hermeneutics of suspicion became so widespread. Things are not what they seem, the world is full of invisible forces which, whether malign or well-intentioned, may be unconscious or invisible to the naked eye, hidden or encoded or otherwise out of reach. Even solid physical objects like tables were revealed by physics to be complicated collections of moving particles. Practices like literary close reading, psychoanalysis, iconology and ideological critique all followed a similar trajectory as the extreme politics of the interwar years provided fertile ground for melodrama, and decoding strategies flourished. Detective fiction was a symptom of the need to reassert the possibility of conventional social order and common sense, but the novels themselves refracted the kinds of analysis that gave rise to the problem. So what looks like a harmless puzzle that culminates in the restoration of order after the revelation of the murderer’s identity may conceal a more troubling and less detectable subtext.
Inevitably, golden age detective stories encapsulate the characteristics and interests of their authors, and – overtly or covertly – the attitudes and assumptions of their times. Sayers adds social and cultural snobbery to a conservative feminism; Michael Innes ties a display of interest in neoclassical art, literature and architecture to one in dreams, nightmare and the grotesque; Margery Allingham’s deep love of a semi-fictional and fast disappearing way of life in rural Suffolk and Essex is intensified by a strong sense of the existence of malign forces; Edmund Crispin combines cleverness with an evasive authorial irony, while Christie’s writing draws comfort and certainty from the conviction that there is such a thing as real, uncomplicated evil. And while all these writers quote from Shakespeare, it is only in the work of Ngaio Marsh that the central element and most pervasive trope is theatricality.
Marsh wrote 32 detective novels. She was born in New Zealand and lived there most of her life, though she spent four years in England between 1928 and 1932, where she wrote her first novel, and after 1948 divided her time between the two countries. By all accounts, she was quite striking: very tall, with a deep voice, a ‘cultured’ accent and a patrician manner. When she left school she spent six or seven years as a part-time student at art college, after which she worked as an actor, drama teacher and playwright, supporting herself by writing journalism, thinking of herself primarily as a painter until she decided she wasn’t good enough. She was running an interior design shop in London with a friend when she decided, one rainy Sunday, to write a detective novel. Its success led to a career spanning almost fifty years. At the same time she worked in the theatre in New Zealand, directing plays by Shakespeare, Pirandello and others, deeply involved in the Christchurch literary and amateur theatrical world. According to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, ‘her directing style was imaginative, meticulous and autocratic,’ and she ‘particularly disliked the New Zealand accent, which she discouraged’. She made a significant contribution to the development of serious theatre in New Zealand, and that is where her heart lay. She never thought of herself as primarily a writer of fiction, and to that extent she was playing a part in her books. But it’s also clear, reading them, that she was at home in theatres, where several of her books are set. It’s obvious, too, that she idealised a kind of Englishness, and that her own writing was stimulated by English contemporaries like Sayers and Christie.
Marsh named her detective, Roderick Alleyn, after the Elizabethan actor who founded the school in Dulwich that her father attended. Although not an amateur like Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey or Allingham’s Albert Campion, Inspector Alleyn is quietly well-connected, a younger son who went to Eton and Oxford and then entered the diplomatic service, but left because he couldn’t stick the terms of the Paris Peace Conference; his concern for justice led him to join the Metropolitan Police instead. Thereafter he proceeds smoothly though not obtrusively up the ladder, but without reaching the heights of Innes’s John Appleby, who ends up knighted, as Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Naming a character after an actor is a very mild gesture towards theatricality, but the novels themselves go much further, relying on misprision, deception, coincidence, and an acceptance of basic improbabilities. Death is hardly serious. The murders do little more than set the plot going, and the corpses provide a fixed central point for the examination of each character’s relationship to the deceased.
Marsh explained in her autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, that she wrote so frequently about the theatre because it was what she knew best, but also because ‘it is [the actors’] business to give every reaction its due and then some. In that respect they can be said to be unusually truthful. This makes them good material for detective fiction.’ ‘Truthful’ in a rather unusual sense, since it doesn’t stop them lying and prevaricating when they want to. There’s a moment in Death at the Dolphin (1966) when the protagonist, Peregrine, playwright and theatre director (the Dolphin is a theatre), asks the actress he’s in love with:
‘What are human beings? What’s the thing that makes monsters of us all?’
‘It’s out of our country. We’ll have to play it by ear.’
‘No, but we act it. It’s our raw material – Murder. Violence. Theft. Sexual greed. They’re commonplace to us. We do our Stanislavsky over them. We search out motives and associated experiences. We try to think our way into Macbeth or Othello or a witch-hunt or an Inquisitor or a killer-doctor at Auschwitz and sometimes we think we’ve succeeded. But confront us with the thing itself! It’s as if a tractor had rolled over us. We’re nothing. Superintendent Gibson is there instead to put it all on a sensible, factual basis.’
Fortunately Alleyn is well-versed in Shakespeare, and able to go beyond the factual to enter the curtained world inhabited by the novel’s characters, unlike the rest of the police: ‘Peregrine would have betted Alleyn knew as much as he did about Shakespearean scholarship and was as familiar with the plays as he was himself.’ A professional detective then, but not déclassé; still a gentleman, well-educated and a regular theatregoer, who happens to be in the police force.
Some of the ramifications of this are disturbing. For a start, like many of his equivalents in the genre, Alleyn works very much on his own, to his own rules. He’s supported by policemen of lower rank, but they are only there to provide comic relief or technical know-how (photography, fingerprinting and so on). Marsh makes a lot of Alleyn’s ethical scruples, especially about capital punishment, which he justifies on the dubious grounds that capital convictions are never wrong in England, since Scotland Yard never makes that sort of mistake. Even when the murderer is discovered, Marsh sometimes suggests they will get off, or plead manslaughter, or even walk free. Or they may take the opportunity offered them to do the right thing by committing suicide. It depends on the circumstances, and whether they are the right sort of person or not. We know what this involves because Alleyn is very sensitive to offences against a class-based code of manners, dress, etiquette and intuitive tone. His easy familiarity with Shakespeare marks out for our approval any other figure who can recognise or, better still, cap the quotations that crop up so frequently in his conversation. It’s a mark of civilisation, like cricket. On the other side of the fence, there are recurring indicators of uncivilised behaviour: drug dealing is unequivocally bad, as is alcoholism; as is phoney spiritualism (even worse when, as in Death in Ecstasy, it’s coupled with drugs) and superstition. And juvenile delinquency. The strength of Marsh’s censoriousness can make the actual business of killing another human being seem almost inconsequential.
Of course there is snobbery here, an attachment to the old social order, as well as a critical awareness of the shifts in social status and the social fabric that took place after the Second World War. Lady Lacklander in Scales of Justice (1955), asks: ‘Do you find us [i.e. the aristocracy] effete, ineffectual, vicious, obsolete and altogether extraneous? … Some of us are, you know.’ Marsh admits the truth of this as it applies to individuals, but believes in the idea of ‘degree’: so long as aristocrats demonstrate behaviour proper to their status, they’re all right, and probably more all right than other sorts of people. And when they don’t, there’s always Alleyn to unmask them. Genuine social ease is a powerful marker of moral character in these books. If you haven’t got it, if your attempt to belong to a class you weren’t born into strikes others as ‘slightly off’, you’re an object of mild derision, satire, or outright, even justified suspicion. Actual aristocrats don’t figure very much in Marsh’s books: the cast of characters is usually quite varied, even when they’re literally a cast of characters, in the theatre novels. The settings are varied too, though they have to conform to the genre’s requirements of a confined space, and a limited number of characters and suspects, possessed of concealed or historic animosities. The locations include a nursing home, a cult chapel, an artist’s studio, a nightclub, villages with grand houses (or vice versa), theatres, a ship, a remote New Zealand spa, a canal boat, and a millionaire’s house on an island in the middle of a lake in rural New Zealand.
On the reader’s part, there has to be a degree of complicity from the outset, a willing suspension of disbelief, an understanding that most of what looks like reality is actually just licensed by the fantasy. There are occasional gestures towards the real world in the form of contemporary references, such as the mention of the theft of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in Death at the Dolphin, as well as the Great Train Robbery and a Joan Littlewood name check. When in Rome (1970) has a reference to the musical Hair. And in Tied Up in Tinsel (1972), we hear about Greek servants who want to come to England to get away from the Colonels. There is also an internal fantasy of reality: references to earlier books are made from time to time, building up a fictitious ‘real’ background to Alleyn’s life. It’s a device Marsh borrows from Conan Doyle, and which Sayers uses to construct the romantic satisfactions of Wimsey’s burgeoning relationship with Harriet Vane. Allingham does the same with Albert Campion and Amanda Fitton, who starts off as a reckless, red-headed tomboy of 17 and ends as the self-possessed Lady Amanda, an aircraft designer and Campion’s wife. Sometimes Marsh refers to cases that weren’t the subject of previous books, but the references to cases that were have a different feel. In Death at the Dolphin, Alleyn recognises a man in the lobby of some mansion flats as the bailiff who installed himself in the house of the Lamprey family in Surfeit of Lampreys, published 25 years earlier. (‘God bless my soul!’ Fox said. ‘Your memory!’) Even in Last Ditch (1977), it turns out quite casually that Julia Pharamond was née Lamprey. ‘“I think long ago you met some of my relations.” “I believe I did,” said Alleyn.’
But for the most part, the world of the novels is sufficiently distant from real world events that they are able simply to exude an aura of the time they were written and provide a window on cultural assumptions, which I think is one of the most interesting and pleasurable things about them. The assumptions may be conscious or unconscious but both offer ways into the books’ subtexts. There’s always a balance, though not always a perfect one, between the believable details of the setting and atmosphere – zeitgeist stuff, social history – and the artificially constructed plot. The formulaic constraints of the genre, themselves encoding responses to the social and political attitudes of the time, serve to filter and focus social attitudes and their sources, sometimes as an aid to understanding a character, sometimes as authorial comment. In Swing, Brother, Swing (published in 1949, the gruesome ambiguity of the title itself a period survival) a dyspeptic character called Edward muses on dance bands, nightclubs and the changing resonance of the word ‘gay’, prompted by the rather seedy bandleader, Breezy Bellairs.
‘Bellairs,’ he told himself, ‘is a gaiety merchant. Gaiety!’ How fashionable, he reflected, the word had been before the war. Let’s be gay, they had all said, and glumly embracing each other had tramped and shuffled, while men like Breezy Bellairs made their noises and did their smiling for them. They christened their children ‘Gay’, and they used the word in their drawing-room comedies and in their dismal, dismal songs. ‘Gaiety!’ muttered the disgruntled and angry Edward.
Marsh’s punning titles are another indication of the need to be aware of a double focus, of something behind everything: Died in the Wool, Singing in the Shrouds, Dead Water, Photo Finish, Clutch of Constables – they all turn out to have a significance beyond the obvious. (Other writers did this too: Nicholas Blake’s The Widow’s Cruise and Christianna Brand’s Heads You Lose are just two examples. Another favoured tactic was to repurpose quotations, as in Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop or Allingham’s Look to the Lady. Innes was proud that two of his titles were clues to the ending.) Reading any detective fiction but perhaps especially Marsh’s, we are brought to a deepening awareness of implication, occlusion, obfuscation and ambiguity. ‘The mechanics in a detective novel may be shamelessly contrived,’ she wrote, ‘but the writing need not be so nor, with one exception, need the characterisation. About the guilty person, of course, endless duplicity is practised.’ The writing need not be contrived, but it does need to hold the readers’ attention and keep them entertained, and this is something Marsh is generally very good at. The writing should be, as she put it late in her career, ‘as good as the author can make it; nervous, taut, balanced and economic. Descriptive passages are vivid and explicit. The author is not self-indulgent.’ She doesn’t go in for the metafictional humour you find in Crispin and Innes, or even in Blake (all Oxford men), but she does sometimes allow herself some self-indulgence, for example with characters’ names: Timon Gantry (a theatre director in False Scent), Octavius Danbury-Phinn (in Scales of Justice – in which the plot turns on the uniqueness of fish scales), and Carbury Glande (in Spinsters in Jeopardy). She can also get carried away with devising improbably far-fetched ways for murder to be committed.
Marsh does vary her narrative technique occasionally, trying out new situations and experimenting with new limitations or perspectives; some books become so caught up in baroque scenarios as to be hardly readable. Final Curtain (1947), too much a pastiche of her earlier work, is pretty dire. In Singing in the Shrouds, Alleyn is on board a passenger-carrying cargo ship, trying to find a murderer. In the absence of any friend or colleague with whom to discuss (for the reader’s benefit) his thinking, he writes letters home to his wife, Troy, summarising each stage of the investigation. In Clutch of Constables, Troy sends letters to Alleyn (who’s in the US) from her canal boat cruise, detailing the murderous events unfolding around her so that he can do his detecting from across the Atlantic. In each case, the letters are intended less for their addressees than for the reader. It all gets a bit laboured after a while.
Detective fiction is never just about finding the murderer: the process of reading it incorporates a whole host of additional resonances. The genre operates by deploying an entire rhetoric of expectation, worry and uncertainty, making us feel it within ourselves as we read. The purpose of the final revelation is to restore unconscious normality, and to remove the anxiety that lurks in everybody about our own death and our murderous capabilities. Dénouements are often anti-climactic, however, despite the theatricality with which the perpetrator is revealed in the final scene, because all they can do is resolve the generic question. They can’t often settle the peripheral questions that hang around uneasily at the back of the reader’s mind. Marsh doesn’t go in much for Poirot-style revelations, with all the suspects gathered in one room and the dramatic accusation arriving as the culmination to a reprise of the whole story, though like other writers she often has her detective admit earlier in the narrative that he knows the identity of the murderer but can’t reveal it before he has more definite proof. There needs to be some kind of cathartic moment, however, some retrospective explanation to dispel the lingering atmosphere of anxiety. Could X or Y really be a murderer, rather than just a suspect? Logically, yes: we understand, and we’re relieved. But the explanations tend to be aesthetically satisfying rather than truly convincing, which is why Miss Marple’s unshakeable belief in innate wickedness works better than vague talk about inheritance or exposure.
The poet C. Day Lewis, in his guise as Nicholas Blake, once said that writing detective stories was a harmless release of a spring of cruelty innate in everyone. One reason for seeing the genre as a form of comedy is its insistence that harmlessness, cruelty and comic detachment are not far removed from one another. The most surreal detective novel I’m aware of is probably Innes’s The Daffodil Affair (1942), which features the kidnapping of a mathematically gifted horse and the removal of a Bloomsbury house brick by brick to South America in the middle of the Blitz. One character remarks to Appleby:
‘I’m being murdered to further the purposes of psychical research […] a perfect detective-story motive, and yet we’re not in a detective-story at all … We’re in a sort of hodge-podge of fantasy and harum-scarum adventure that isn’t a proper detective story at all. We might be by Michael Innes.’
‘Innes? I’ve never heard of him,’ Appleby spoke with decided exasperation.
The surreal is brought down to earth by the donnish metafictional joke. Crispin does something similar in The Moving Toyshop. It’s a play that runs through the genre, perhaps especially in the work of male writers, as metafiction becomes a kind of reality in novels like Blake’s The Beast Must Die or Richard Hull’s ironic The Murder of My Aunt, both of which use the form of a journal. In the most extreme case, Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the narrator himself turns out to be the murderer. Journals can blur the line between author, narrator and protagonist, and – as in The Beast Must Die, where the diary is a fiction constructed by the murderer – they can turn the detective into a literary critic. In that novel Nigel Strangeways realises the truth after he has read the diary and thought about its phrasing and the context of his discovery of it, reading the text and reading between the lines in the same way the reader is meant to read any detective story.
It’s all very literary. Detectives are often alarmingly well-read, reeling off quantities of poetry by heart. Sometimes they are actual professors of literature, like Crispin’s Gervase Fen (who is perpetually annoyed that Oxfordshire’s chief constable publishes literary criticism). Scholars and poets and schoolteachers abound. Even Charles Latimer, the protagonist of Eric Ambler’s thriller The Mask of Dimitrios, a university lecturer in economics, is one of ‘the great army of university professors who write detective stories in their spare time’ and ‘one of the shamefaced few who could make money at the sport’. This selfconsciousness masks an uncertainty about the genre’s purpose – after all, making entertainment out of murder is weird – and allows the narrative itself to become a sort of impersonation, in some cases literally: many of these writers, perhaps the majority, used a pseudonym. Using diaries is one way of emphasising impersonation. Marsh’s theatricality is another. Plenty of other writers use theatrical settings, the machinery of rehearsal and performance, and dramatic structure, to form the scaffolding of their novels, not to mention borrowing plots from Shakespeare. Josephine Tey’s novels, which tend to pivot on people pretending to be someone they’re not, have a theatricality peculiar to themselves. In Brat Farrar, it is the impersonator who unmasks the murderer. In To Love and Be Wise, in which there turns out not to have been a murder, only impersonation by cross-dressing, Inspector Grant finds it helpful talking to his actor friend, Marta: ‘It was true that actors had a perception, an understanding of human motive, that normal people lacked.’
In Christie’s Peril at End House, the protagonist, Nick, says,
I love End House. I’ve always wanted to produce a play there. It’s got an – an atmosphere of drama about it. I’ve seen all sorts of plays staged there in my mind. And now it’s as though a drama were being acted there. Only I’m not producing it … I’m in it! I’m right in it! I am, perhaps, the person who – dies in the first act.
The dénouement of the novel is pure theatre, literally and metaphorically. It’s a reminder that social life is all about acting, pretending, impersonating and, where necessary, lying. It’s much easier in novels or on the stage to pretend to be someone you’re not, especially when it’s a matter of social prestige. Golden age detective fiction was written at a time when people were radically unsure about everything: about the nature of money and modern art but also about what life in society required and meant. The theatricality of Ngaio Marsh’s novels is partly a response to this, intensified by her own involvement in the theatre, but the theatricality of her books and of the genre as a whole is not just a matter of historical interest: it’s a clue to our intellectual voyeurism and to the reason these books retain their fascination. We’re all grown-up versions of desperately curious infants: we know where babies come from, but we don’t know anything about the fundamental question of our death. When we’re reading a detective story, our anxious, paranoid curiosity is directed towards discovering why someone else has died. The body in the library is never our own.