Monday, 4 October 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Photo Finish (1980)

Edition: Collins, 1980
Review number: 347

Right at the end of her career, Marsh took her detective Alleyn back to her beloved New Zealand, scene of some of his earlier successes. It was almost forty years after her previous novel set outside Europe. Photo Finish also features a flamboyant, larger than life stage personality, the soprano Isabella Sommita. Emotionally exhausted after attacks on her by a photographer naming himself Strix, who pursued her across the world, surprising her in unflattering poses to destroy her image, she goes to the New Zealand home of her multimillionaire lover. From there she summons both Alleyn and his wife - Alleyn to investigate the identity of Strix, Troy to paint "La Sommita". Alleyn accepts because he is interested in suspicions that some of Sommita's entourage are involved in the drug trade, Troy because she is fascinated by the singer's face and the challenge of conveying a personality whose vanity and temper are almost as famous as her voice.

At the house, in an inaccessible part of the South Island, the party is cut off by bad weather. Then her maid finds Isabella Sommita, dead, with Strix's latest photo attached to her body by the dagger through her heart.

This, Marsh's last but one novel, is more like an Agatha Christie than most of her books. It has a strong puzzle at its centre, to which character distinctly takes a second place. This is the case to the extent that I found it difficult to remember which of the characters were which in some cases. The background is well done; the beauty of the South Island is portrayed convincingly but is never obtrusive.

In quite a large proportion of Marsh's novels - I should think around ten of the fifty or so - Troy is innocently involved in one of her husband's cases. I have mentioned this before, but I bring it up again since it is mentioned in Photo Finish. Alleyn remarks how much he hates Troy being involved in his investigations, and says that this has happened four times. Perhaps through a career of over fifty years Marsh had a less solid memory of her novels than I do at the moment, having read them through in order in two years, but I was immediately able to think of more examples than this.

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