Exciting news for Golden Age fans as Ngaio Marsh’s unfinished Inspector Alleyn novel has been completed and published by Stella Duffy. Marsh was one of the founders of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, and I enjoyed a lot of her novels, so I was intrigued to see how Duffy had interpreted her work.
The novel opens with a list of characters and a map of the principal setting, followed closely by the line ‘So closely did these events follow the arbitrary design of a play that the temptation to represent Mr Glossop as an overture cannot be withstood’ in the opening chapter. Despite the indications, do not be fooled into thinking this is anything like a play- the novel is far too evocative and emotionally charged to be a play script.
Instead, this is an emotional rollercoaster depicting the horrors of the Second World War from a rural New Zealand hospital. Inspector Roderick Alleyn is holed up at the remote Mount Seager Hospital, where the reader finds him pretending to be ill as part of a covert mission. Listening in on the small worries and petty grievances of the staff and patients, Alleyn is on the trail of the sender of mysterious coded messages, which are believed to be the trigger that brings a Japanese submarine into New Zealand’s territory.
His work is interrupted by the arrival of the aforementioned Mr Glossop, a payroll clerk on his rounds whose car mysteriously breaks down. Stranded at the hospital with the payroll, he is forced to take refuge at Mount Seager, leaving the money in the care of the formidable matron. When the money disappears from the safe where she placed it on the night a storm hits and an ill patient dies, Alleyn is called upon to investigate the sinister goings on. The death count quickly rises, leaving Alleyn with more than just espionage to worry about.
Bundled together in an isolated hospital, cut off from the outside world, Mount Seager’s inhabitants, include a group of quarantined soldiers, the hospital’s long-suffering staff, and a number of civilian patients. The group’s personal problems, compounded by the knowledge that there is a criminal in their midst, creates tension and causes havoc with the intrepid Inspector’s investigation.
Much like Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, in Money in the Morgue it is hard to tell where Marsh’s writing ends and Duffy’s begins, which is the sign of a truly great collaboration. Tension is established from the very first paragraph, and the exceptional characterization, coupled with the ever-present shadow of the war that trails through the novel like a specter at the feast, create a truly thrilling novel that is almost impossible to put down.
Personally I believe that Marsh would be proud of what Duffy has created in Money in the Morgue. An undeniable Golden Age crime story, this is one of those novels you will finish and immediately want to restart. There are so many nuances and literary flourishes, as well as nods back to Marsh’s earlier work, that will make you want to keep reading so as not to miss anything.