Do you ever finish a book with a feeling of regret because now you have to leave its world? That’s certainly happened to me many times, and my son said once when he was younger that he wished he wasn’t such a fast reader, since he sometimes didn’t want a book to end. Yesterday, because of a memory brought to mind of a phrase from a 1960’s detective novel, I loaded up the audiobook version of A Clutch of Constables by the New Zealand mystery author Ngaio Marsh. I had returned a couple of audiobooks to Audible.com that I knew in my heart of hearts I was never going to finish and so had some credits to spend. Constables wasn’t available as a download through the library, so I went ahead and spent a credit.
And I have to admit to spending time on a number of tasks yesterday and today that perhaps weren’t strictly necessary (such as organizing the bathroom stuff when it’s all going to get reshuffled anyway after we finish the remodeling in there) just so I could keep listening. At least since it was on audio I could be doing something else at the same time.
Marsh is considered to be one of the four “Queens of Crime” from the 1940’s-1960’s (the others being Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham). Her detective is an upper-class, sophisticated chap named Roderick Alleyn, but to be honest he’s not all that interesting in and of himself. He’s no Poirot. Instead, at least for me, the characters I most enjoy are his sidekick, DI Fox, nicknamed “Br’er Fox,” and his wife, Agatha Troy, whom I described yesterday.
I remember vividly the first time I read Constables. I had picked it up at the library, pleased to see a Marsh novel I hadn’t read before, and I finished it that night in bed. I probably somewhat spoiled the experience for myself as I couldn’t stand to put it down but I was fighting sleep as I read it. I would have enjoyed it much more, I think, if I’d turned out the light and read the rest the next day. Do you ever do that to yourself, by the way? Be so eager to experience something that you sort of shoot yourself in the foot instead of waiting until you can really enjoy it?
Anyway, the best novels, and relevant to this discussion the best detective novels, create a world of their own into which you’re drawn as you read. Sometimes the setting is itself almost a character. Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Gaudy Night, and Murder Must Advertise all have that characteristic, with the low “fen country” of England in the first one, a fictitious college at Oxford University in the second, and a 1930’s advertising agency in the third. In Constables, the setting is aboard a river barge, one that makes five-day sightseeing journeys. It’s the somewhat cliched situation of a group of characters thrown together in an enclosed space, but I don’t remember a setting on a barge before. And it’s mostly told from Troy’s point of view, as she decides on an impulse to go on the cruise by herself. The little boat is its own world, with excursions on shore and interleaved chapters of Alleyn himself giving a lecture later on about the crime.
Some more modern crime authors such as Elizabeth George have made the setting too much of a good thing. I finally gave up on George after I waded through some opus or other of hers that stretched to more than 700 pages; I thought that she could have easily cut out half of her relentlessly-detailed descriptions. Honestly! But Marsh has a true painterly eye for telling details and doesn’t overdo it. I wondered if she were a painter herself, as Troy is, but she was more interested in the theater and had quite a career in that, producing a number of plays. I didn’t see in her Wikipedia entry any explanation of her interest in painting. Troy rings true as an artist, though.
I’m feeling the temptation to go back and re-read as many of the Marsh mysteries as I can, but I’m going to resist it. Not all of them rise to the level of this one, although they’re all good. There is one that I especially liked, though, which is set in Rome and is therefore out of the Marsh mainstream, as it were. The murder takes place in the catacombs. So I’ll probably confine myself to that. Before I allow myself to get it, though, I must listen to some more of the Covey book. (How long will it be before I can stop saying that?)
If you’re looking for something to get you through a long car trip I’d highly recommend the audiobook. The reader is just great. His rendering of the character Miss Hazel Rickerby-Carrick is particularly delicious. Spot on, a the British would say. And the book as a whole deals with some interesting cultural issues, notably that of racism. The novel takes place in the 1960’s, and among the passengers there is one lone black man. The various attitudes of the passengers towards him is, sadly, not all that dissimilar to those that might be displayed today.
Let me know if you enjoy the book!