Friday, 15 October 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Light Thickens (1982)

Edition: Fontana, 1982
Review number: 361
 
It is perhaps fitting that Ngaio Marsh's last novel should have a theatrical setting, given the importance of the theatre in her life. (Symmetrically, her first novel, Enter a Murderer, is also set in a theatre during a production of Macbeth.) It does use the hoary old device of the acted death of a character turning out to be a real killing of the actor, one which she herself has used at least three times, but the story is well enough written to make light of that defect.

From the story point of view, we meet an old acquaintance again: Peregrine Jay, the author and director from Death at the Dolphin. He's now putting on a production of Macbeth at the Dolphin, things beginning to go wrong when someone starts to play practical jokes designed to remind everyone of the play's superstitious reputation as an unlucky one. For the final scene, the death of Macbeth at the hands of Macduff, a really spectacular fight sequence is devised. The man in charge of this, Gaston Sears, is a little bit strange on the subject of weapons; he brings a genuine claidheamh mor along (treating anyone who will listen to a lecture on why it shouldn't be known as a claymore - the anglicised spelling), and this is used to decapitate the actor playing Macbeth.

Events proceed smoothly to Alleyn's unmasking of the villain. Light Thickens is not as dated as some of Marsh's attempts to appear contemporary. This fault, combined with her general inability to write convincing children, is apparent here mainly in some appalling schoolboy slang - I can't imagine anyone in the early eighties describing something as "sonky-polly-lobby".

Through her long career, Marsh wrote some of the best of the classic crime novels. Her fifty novels are decidedly uneven, and some would perhaps be better forgotten. Her main faults included repetition of plot ideas; the desire to re-use characters meaning that coincidence was used too frequently (what proportion of people ever get involved in one murder investigation, let alone three or four?); her attempts to be contemporary from the sixties onwards, which merely made her look old fashioned; her inability to portray the working class or children. She also had many virtues - obviously, or else she couldn't have become such a well beloved and long lasting writer. She wrote strong characters, Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy in particular taking a place in readers' affections; her plots are usually moderately complex puzzles and are generally fairer on the reader than those of Agatha Christie; her love for New Zealand and for acting brings a particular enthusiasm for the novels which involve these elements.

1 comment:

Sudha Shastri said...

Gaston Sears, NOT Gareth Sears