Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Drowned Hopes

Poor little Wally Trehern had warts. All the other children would tease him, and they were such ugly things to look at that people tended to avoid him. But when he met the Green Lady, something odd happened. The Green Lady told Wally to wash his hands with water from a nearby spring, and that if he truly believed his warts would go away, they’d go away. The odd thing is that the warts did go away overnight. And when Miss Cost, a chronic asthma sufferer, declares that the same spring cured her of her asthma. And as soon as the media gets ahold of the story, the miraculous Pixie Falls become a sensation.

A few years pass, and the miraculous healing powers of the spring attract many visitors. There’s the odd reported cure, but there are many people who walk away from the spring no better off than when they started. When the land on which the spring stands is inherited by Miss Emily Pride, she decides to put a stop to the whole thing. But the island dwellers have prospered due to this sudden Pixie Falls boom, and they resent Miss Pride’s intrusion. A few anonymous threats later, after an attack on Miss Pride, Roderick Alleyn arrives on the scene to protect Miss Pride, an old teacher of his. But it may be too little too late, as the situation soon escalates into murder.

Ngaio Marsh’s Dead Water is the subject of today’s review, and it’s my third exposure to Marsh after Death of a Fool and Tied up in Tinsel. My two previous exposures left me with very mixed feelings about Marsh. Death of a Fool had plenty of potential and great ideas, but it mismanaged many of them and made for a bit of a dull read with an obvious solution. Tied up in Tinsel also started very promisingly, but the whole book fell apart a few chapters in and was an absolute nightmare to plough through. As a result, I’ve been very reluctant to revisit Marsh. I tend to play by baseball rules – three strikes and you’re out – and if Marsh disappointed me again, the odds were that I would decide I didn’t like Ngaio Marsh. And as a fan of Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, it is apparently a rule that I’m supposed to love Marsh as well.

Unfortunately, although Dead Water is a good book – in fact, the best of the three Marsh novels I’ve read to date – it left me thoroughly unenthusiastic and rather bored. And I probably won’t want to read another Marsh novel anytime soon.

It’s not as though it was a terrible read. There’s a decent plot in here, and for once the murderer would not be transparently obvious to a six-year-old. But it isn’t a particularly ingenious plot, either, and I quickly got a “feeling” that so-and-so was a person of interest in this case. That feeling proved justified, and as the facts rolled in, the facts supported this feeling of mine. I suppose it is a peril of reading detective stories, that the more you read them, the more often you can feel your way through them. However, there is one massive objection to the whole plot, a point of contradiction which involves something that Wally surely should have noticed, especially given the fact that he was given a few years to notice it!!!

The characters are okay, but I found it very difficult to warm up to any of them. Miss Pride’s motives for wanting to close the spring are understandable ones, but her way of expressing these motives make her borderline intolerable, especially when you factor in her haughtiness, which makes for a rather annoying character. I can’t really remember any other character distinctly. There was a Nice Young Couple, which by the narrative clichés of the genre had to wind up together, and this was a generic, bland romance with nothing to set it apart from the dozens of lovers I’ve read about already this year. The more of these I come across, the more I catch myself sympathising with S. S. Van Dine’s injunction against romance in a detective story.

I find Alleyn annoying. I’m not a fan of these foppish policemen, who constantly spout literary quotations in an unsuccessful effort to sound clever and witty. (The rare exceptions to this preference of mine, such as Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby, tend to actually be clever and witty.) I’m also not a fan of Troy, who once again appears on the sidelines as a cheerleader for Alleyn. She doesn’t seem to have any personality of her own. I might be wrong, maybe she is more developed in other books, but I really don’t want to read any more.

Overall, I’m afraid I didn’t like Dead Water. It’s okay, I guess, and it certainly passes the time, but at the end of the day I felt like I was reading a poor man’s Margery Allingham. It wasn’t as well written as other detective stories I’ve read. It wasn’t as ingenious. The detective wasn’t as witty or as clever as he seemed to think. The character of Miss Pride was probably meant to be the kind of character that Margery Allingham always did so well, the lovably crazy eccentric – think Aunt Caroline, the iron-fisted ruler of Socrates Close in Police at the Funeral. But unfortunately, Marsh didn’t do nearly as good of a job creating this character. At the end of the day, I was left glancing at my watch, wanting to move on to another book. If you’re already a Marsh fan, this might be a good book for you. If you aren’t a Marsh fan, this will not be a book to convert you. It’s just another one of the many entries into mediocrity, and all it’s accomplished is turning me off Ngaio Marsh altogether.


  1. You are so right about Marsh and the Nice Young Couple--boring! With Agatha Christie there's always the chance one (or maybe both) of the couple has done something very wicked indeed. Marsh's snobbishness in this book--I think the greatest sin for her was not murder but tackiness--made me sympathize with the property developers.

  2. You've picked Marsh's three worst books! Try When in Rome, Clutch of Constables or Opening Night.

  3. Like you Patrick, I've been all that keen on Marsh but always try again as so many like her stuff ... Sooner or later I'll learn!