Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dead Water - Ngaio Marsh

First published 1964; cover shown is the 1983 Fontana (UK) paperback edition. 220p.

My first Ngaio Marsh! Not counting Tied up in Tinsel, the first few pages of which I read years ago before giving up in boredom. My verdict on Dead Water? It was good - very good.

Set mainly in a small island village connected at low tide to the English mainland, the story opens with the creation of a legend. A small boy, afflicted by warts on his hands, runs sobbing to a small waterfall after being teased. Looking up, he sees a beautiful woman, who tells him to wash his hands in the water. The next day Wally's warts have mysteriously disappeared, and within months the legend of the "Green Lady" and the miracle waters of Pixie Falls bring unimagined change to the village and its inhabitants.

For two years the village enjoys a prosperity it had never before known - especially the local pub and a new souvenir shop, run by Miss Cost, a sex-crazed spinster. And then the unthinkable happens. The owner of the island dies, leaving everything to her sister Miss Emily Pride, 83 years old and as stubborn as they come. She finds the idea of the Green Lady and the so-called miracle water abhorrent, and is determined to stop any profiteering by the villagers. Her good friend and former student, Scotland Yard Superintendent Roderick Alleyn, tries to dissuade Miss Pride from travelling to the island, but to no avail.

Within minutes of Miss Pride's arrival in the village, the antagonism felt towards her is clearly palpable. The alcoholic landlord of the pub, Major Barrimore, knows his financial future depends on what Miss Pride decides to do - as does Miss Cost. Having already received anonymous threatening letters, Miss Pride is further intimidated by having rocks hurled at her back, and finding a death note attached to a Green Lady figurine in her rooms at the pub.

Alleyn is uneasy, and contacts the local constabulary. A police constable keeps a discreet eye on Miss Pride, but his presence doesn't stop a murder. And no, it's not Miss Pride. Instead, Miss Cost is found with her head battered, drowned in Pixie Falls. Alleyn is quickly persuaded by the local superintendent to take over the case, and in an incredibly short period of time he unveils the murderer - a relatively surprising one.

There are some great characters in this story - the most notable of which is Wally, the boy with the miraculously cured warts and two pretty awful parents. Marsh's sense of humour shines through in all of his scenes, and I loved how she used accents and language to create atmosphere.

Ngaio Marsh (1899 - 1982) grew up in New Zealand. She wrote her first Alleyn book in 1934, after deciding to write a detective story on a rainy Saturday in London. Ngaio is pronounced "Nye-o".

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