Wednesday, 24 March 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Dead Water (1964)

Edition: Fontana

Another village crime novel by Ngaio Marsh, this one set on a small island connected to the Cornish mainland by a causeway. On the island, there is a spring, and there, a small boy, washing his hands in the water, experienced an immediate healing of the warts that covered his hands. Over the two years following this event, reported in the national press, a steady stream of people has come to the pool, seeking cures for themselves and enriching the inhabitants of the island.

After two years, a new owner, Miss Price, who disapproves of the tasteless and exploitative way in which her tenants are promoting the pool, inherits the island. She announces her intention of stopping their lucrative trade. When she starts receiving anonymous threats, the police become involved, but then she visits the island; attempts are made to harm her, and then a woman is murdered, in circumstances where she could have been mistaken for Miss Price.

As in Off With His Head, Marsh adopts a twee attitude to the English village, one riddled with snobbery. (I grew up myself in a small village, and either things had changed dramatically over thirty years, or Marsh had only seen the English village from New Zealand.) Dead Water is full of unpleasant, in-bred yokels on the one hand, and nice upper class people on the other (with the exception of an alcoholic). Her attitude seems more and more old-fashioned by the minute, and it's a pity because she did write some of the best classic detective novels.

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