Some crime writers write as if evil is omnipresent and lurks below the most innocuous surface, everyone is capable of crime, and nearly everyone has a secret in their past that they would commit a crime to conceal. I’d put Gladys Mitchell (the Mrs Bradley series) and Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine (for example in A fatal inversion) in this camp.
Others write as if they feel the world is fundamentally okay, people of goodwill are in the majority, crimes are unusual and happen as an outcome of unusual circumstances. I place Marjorie Allingham and Ngaio Marsh in this group.
And maybe that is why I enjoy re-reading Marsh and Allingham’s books, because of the feeling that after some shocking and unfortunate occurrence has been sorted out (by Roderick Alleyn or Albert Campion), the surviving characters will return to their constructive and happy lives – apart from the villains, naturally.
So after reading Hamnet I turned to Death at the Dolphin by Ngaio Marsh. Or rather returned. My copy of this book is a battered hardback labelled ‘Lancashire libraries – removed from service,’ and although on the slipcover the price is declared to be 52 ½ p (aha! – was 10/6 and the coinage changed), 10p has been scribbled on the title page. I lived in Lancashire in the late 1970s, so I’ve owned this tattered copy for more than forty years. It is packed on a shelf with a dozen or fifteen more of Ngaio Marsh’s stories, and may not have been disturbed (except for dusting, of course!) for a couple of decades.
I re-read this book many times in the past, but not recently. However, it was in the back of my mind all the time I was reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, because Ngaio Marsh’s story is shaped round the discovery of a glove, made by John Shakespeare for his grandson.
Ngaio Marsh loved the theatre, and much of the first part of the book is given to a loving description of the rescue and restoration of a decrepit theatre – The Dolphin. It is hard not to believe that the theatre exists, that if one walked up from the Thames one wouldn’t stumble into Wharfinger’s Lane, follow it round a corner then find oneself facing the caryatids, dolphins and scrolled ironwork that frame the entrance to the Dolphin. Peregrine Jay, the chief protagonist, is a playwright and director whose enthusiasm and professional concerns are both endearing and believable. As I expect in Ngaio Marsh’s tales there is a satisfactory romance between two of her characters; when violence and death occur, they are shocking, and are vividly described; and the plot twists satisfactorily while the crime is untangled by Alleyn and Fox.
But, reading with a more critical eye, there are faults. Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealander who lived in England in the 1920s and 30s; although most of her books are set in England, even books set in later decades maintain the class structure, and speech patterns of that time. In Death at the Dolphin there are typecast cockneys, which just seems lazy; but also racial comments and an elision of homosexuality and paedophilia which are both disturbing and objectionable.
Will I read the book again? And any more of those on ‘her’ shelf? Probably, but while enjoying the cosiness of an English village returning to an even keel, or the excitement of another production (and murder) at the Dolphin, (Light Thickens); I hope I’ll be alert to prejudice, and careful not to allow a former age’s bigotry to colour my own thoughts.