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What I've Finished Reading

How strange, Troy thought as they drove away, that she should so sharply regret leaving the River. For a moment she entertained a notion that because of the violence that threaded its history there was something unremarkable, even appropriate, in the latest affront to the River. Poor Hazel Rickerby-Carrick, she thought, has joined a long line of drowned faces and tumbled limbs: Plantagenets and Frenchmen, Lancastrians and Yorkists, cropped, wigged and ringleted heads: bloated and desecrated bodies. They had drenched the fields and fed the River. The landscape had drawn them into itself and perhaps grown richer for them.

"I shall come back to the waterways," Troy thought. She and Alleyn and their son and his best girl might hire a longboat and cruise, not here, not between Tollardwark and Ramsdyke, but further south or west where there was no detergent on the waters. But it was extremely odd, all the same, that she should want to do so.

Ngaio Marsh is hitting a quiet but enjoyable second stride late in her career. The investigative portion of these books is less sharp than in the old days -- I haven't really felt the dismaying thrill of an Alleyn interrogation for quite a while now -- but the pre-murder plots and settings have grown up thick and leisurely around it, and some of the intermittent clumsiness of the Spinsters in Jeopardy era is gone. It could just be that her formula is so familiar to me now that I've become numb even to its failures, but I don't think so. I think these are pretty good Marsh books. Plus, the combination of Golden Age mystery tropes with "with-it" characters and topics (as we creep up through the Seventies) is always fun to see, at least from way up here in the future.

Clutch of Constables was more or less timeless -- apart from a stray reference or two, and some of the interests of the resident Hysterical Spinster, it could have taken place at any point between about 1920-70. When in Rome, on the other hand, is very much A Tale of the Groovy Now. Successfully? probably not. Entertainingly? I would say yes. It's a drug story, involving the heroin and cocaine trade among English tourists in Rome, and a blackmail story independently of the drugs. I don't like drug stories generally, but I think it's actually a little better done than Marsh's earlier Reefer Madness mysteries of the thirties and forties. And Marsh provides a convincing in-story explanation for why the Plummy Colonel character is an anachronism! There's also an interestingly "shocking" reveal, and some mildly shocking (to me) behavior on Alleyn's part -- shocking for Alleyn, that is, not necessarily for your run-of-the-mill series detective.

Both these books were a lot of fun, for the most part. Marsh's apparent dislike of old ladies who are doing old-ladyhood wrong is a little strong in both, but that can't be helped at this point. The impeccable British-Ethiopian doctor in Constables provided an opportunity for the villains to do some racist puppy-kicking, something I'm not super fond of, but it could have been a lot worse.

What I'm Reading Now

Unlike Poirot, who can feel himself growing old as the present reels endlessly away beneath him, Alleyn never seems to age at all. That is, he gets a promotion every couple of books, and somewhere in there his son grew up enough to take trips on his own and have a "best girl," and every now and then (much more so in the past few books than before) someone will remember an old case and say, "Why, that must be twenty years ago!" But no one ever mentions how old he is, and he doesn't talk about it (he wouldn't, I guess), and everyone in the story reacts to him as if he were still the blandly dashing fortysomething of the 1930s. In Tied Up in Tinsel, for example, the Difficult Ingenue (who, as a representative of her generation, is involved with experimental nude theatre and says "you know" too much) makes a "dead set" at him and coos to Troy about how "simply the mostest" he is. Is he supposed to be literally eighty here, as the text keeps hinting with its references to past cases and how long ago they were, or still forty, or somewhere in between? It doesn't really matter. Alleyn is what he always was, only now. There's no hint of melancholy in his Detective Stasis -- not yet, anyway.

Tied Up in Tinsel is another of these good but slightly muted late Marshes. Like A Clutch of Constables, it begins with Troy on her own -- this time, she's painting an eccentric subject at his house over Christmas, where she learns how he solved the "servant problem" by staffing his old-school mansion entirely with murderers! Murderers of "the right sort," he explains -- those who killed once under extraordinary circumstances unlikely to be repeated -- are the safest kind of convict to have around the house, and ex-cons make for grateful and cheap labor! Can this brilliant plan possibly backfire?? Actually, I'm pretty sure the half-dozen household murderers are a blind and the real killer will turn out to be someone else.

I'm enjoying the increased frequency of Troy-centric books. You can always pretty much tell what's going to happen in a Troy-centric book: Troy will be dryly observant about some non-Troy characters, there will be some plausible-sounding technical musing about painting, Troy will be brought up short by the same four or five unanswerably ignorant questions from non-specialists and think something scathing, eventually murder will rescue her from the burden of being polite to her admirers (but not for at least a hundred pages!) and Alleyn will show up to be awkward and adorable for ten seconds before he gets down to genre business -- but it's always neatly done and entertaining.

What I Plan to Read Next

The sequel to The Last Detective, if it ever comes back to the library, plus whatever's next in the Marsh queue. Possibly also (or instead) The Gentle Axe, that Porfiry Petrovich mystery I mentioned a while back.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 13th, 2016 07:57 am (UTC)
I'm glad you're enjoying the current run of Marshes. I thought you'd enjoy all the Troy in Constables, at least. I'm a lot blurrier on the rest - I think my last re-read must have become halted somewhere before then.

As to Alleyn, he seems to maybe be eventually a sort of distinguished 50-something, but no more. Troy is also not old, either. (Although, to be fair, given that Poirot started out by retiring, his aging process has still been considerably slowed - but it is there by the end, whereas Alleyn is as unbothered by aging as he is by most other things that aren't Troy.)

Murderers of "the right sort," he explains -- those who killed once under extraordinary circumstances unlikely to be repeated -- are the safest kind of convict to have around the house, and ex-cons make for grateful and cheap labor! Can this brilliant plan possibly backfire??

:lol: of course not! It is a plan with no flaws, especially when hatched by someone in a murder mystery book.
Jun. 13th, 2016 11:42 am (UTC)
The best plan possible! And anyway, people in murder mysteries can always ascertain that they're not living in a murder mystery by a careful comparison of their own circumstances with those of the murder mysteries they have read. So we're golden!

Troy and Alleyn are both such troupers, really. No sense crying over spilt murder. (No sense being any age but your best age, either).

I love Poirot's stubborn refusals to give in to old age by e.g., wearing more comfortable shoes. He's Poirot to the end, however impossibly long it takes to get there.
Jun. 13th, 2016 12:18 pm (UTC)
Maybe Alleyn started detecting when he was sixteen. His natural unflappability and charm made him a natural for the job.

I hope there was a book in the seventies with the subtitle "A Tale of the Groovy Now." It might be the most trying-too-hard book ever and I bet it would be delightful to read from the perspective of forty years later.
Jun. 13th, 2016 12:30 pm (UTC)
Maybe! I think his age is indicated early on, though not to any high degree of specificity. He's "about forty" and has a vague but consistent work history.

Already-existing age cues didn't stop Laurie R. King from de-aging Sherlock Holmes a couple of decades in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, to make room in the future for new globe-trotting adventures -- she just claimed that Watson aged him up back in the day because he thought it would lend authority. Silly old Watson, always getting the story wrong.

So maybe the CID hired Alleyn straight out of school, on the basis of his natural detecting talents, invented a backstory for him to cover thier tracks, and spent the next forty years being vague about his age. I could buy it!

I hope there was a book in the seventies with the subtitle "A Tale of the Groovy Now."

Your hope is my hope, too!

Jun. 13th, 2016 05:15 pm (UTC)
Everything I've heard about The Beekeeper's Apprentice makes it sound like it would be absolutely maddening to a dedicated Holmesian. Perhaps the publishers were aiming it at mystery readers who aren't that into Sherlock Holmes? Or people who have a pop culture awareness of Holmes and see Watson as his dim assistant and aren't going to be upset by seeing Watson downgraded.

If "A Tale of the Groovy Now" doesn't exist, then at least it should be the title of a book within a book. If I ever write anything set in the 1970s I'll have to remember it.
Jun. 13th, 2016 06:36 pm (UTC)
Oh, Beekeeper's Apprentice. :| Now that I've actually read some of the Mary Russell books, I always feel compelled to defend them and LRK, in theory at least, even though I didn't actually like them.

The rumor is that LRK watched a lot of the Basil Rathbothe-Nigel Bruce Holmes and Watson growing up, and her characterizations are heavily adaptation-influenced, which would explain sweet old doddering Uncle John. But I'm pretty sure there are people who like them who are much more dedicated Holmesians than I am -- they're meant to be playful (is the impression I get from the titles) and people have different ideas of what makes a good Holmes pastiche or homage or sequel. And probably there are a lot of readers who enjoy it as popcorny historical fiction without noticing the Holmes angle too much. I frequently find myself wishing I liked them more; I'm not sure why. The mysteries tend to be baggy and come to unsatisfying ends, though that wouldn't bother me if I cared about any of the characters or enjoyed the writing, and maybe they get better later? This is not turning out to be a very good defense. Maybe someone else can step in.

The Watson Issue was really what severed me from MR from the beginning, though I spent a lot of time reading past it to see if the rest of the book would start to get fun (no). Russell-as-narrator being patronizing abut Watson is one thing, but a Holmes who glibly agrees with her is no Holmes of mine. This may be slightly irrational, but it can't be helped.

Edited at 2016-06-13 06:41 pm (UTC)
Jun. 13th, 2016 08:22 pm (UTC)
I feel a similar peculiar compulsion to defend the Twilight books. Although I think actually I liked those more than you liked Mary Russell - or, rather, there are parts of them that I really like, and parts that I don't care for at all. But people are so snide about them that I always feel like I should stand up and defend them from their careless critics.

Perhaps you feel that the Mary Russell concept is interesting, even if the execution isn't to your liking, and that's why you feel the need to defend it? I think both Twilight and Mary Russell get a certain number of scathing critics (who may not have even read the books) mostly because of sexism.
Jun. 13th, 2016 09:32 pm (UTC)
I have the same compulsion to defend Twilight! Or Twilight readers, anyway. It's very much not my flavor of garbage, but I hate to see people make sweeping assumptions about readers based on whether they like one thing, and Twilight fans seemed to get a lot of that.

With Mary Russell, I guess I feel like I want to make a distinction between my dislike and that of an imaginary group of grumpy old-school Holmesians: I'm not horrified that King had THE GALL to impose her plucky holodeck avatar on Holmes' later years, I just wish she'd done it in a way I found more entertaining, and minus the Jam Watson.

As for why I keep trying to read them -- they have really nice covers? I like vintage detection? And there's always something in the plot summary that sounds exciting or clever or both (but turns out not to be).
Jun. 14th, 2016 09:24 am (UTC)
The Russell and Holmes books are certainly not perfect, which has frustrated me at times. However, I enjoy the moments of suspense, and I find Russell's narration really vivid and comforting. I like the way she puts words together and the way she describes the places she goes. (The latest one is sitting on my bedside table and I haven't read past the second chapter yet because it's in third person and I'm here for first-person Russell.)

So "popcorny historical fiction" is a a good way of putting it, although part of the appeal for me is that they feel more substantial than popcorn, even though, upon reflection, they're actually not.

Also, I like the reinterpretion aspect of the books, much the same way I like fairytale retellings.

I don't share Russell's interpretation of Watson (I'm not sure if King herself shares it or if this is meant to be Russell being unreliable/biased), but I don't find it surprising. When I studied Sherlock Holmes at uni, there were very few of us in the class willing to speak up in defence of Watson.
Jun. 14th, 2016 02:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks, ladyherenya! I knew I had some Russell fans in my flist! The retelling/reinterpretation aspect is attractive to me, too, even though MR didn't work for me as a narrator.

I've always been sort of mildly Watson-defensive, but I didn't realize I had strong feelings about Watson until LKR had her Holmes tell Russell, "Watson could never be a true partner to me." Alt-Holmes, no. :( :( :( All those years! I know, reinterpretation and unreliable narration. but still. :( My heart is not always the most generous reader, I'm afraid.

What's your favorite of the Russell books?
Jul. 9th, 2016 04:56 am (UTC)
A very belated reply, partly because I'm not sure what my favourite Russell book is! I've been thinking about it (whilst I tried to read the most recent one, which is possibly my least favourite - finally finished it this week).

I've reread the first two books more than the others. I also really like the duo O Jerusalem and Justice Hall, and last year's Dreaming Spies.
Jun. 13th, 2016 02:27 pm (UTC)
Jun. 13th, 2016 07:20 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's an absolutely lovely quote. I never thought of Marsh as a particularly poetic writer, but wow.
Jun. 13th, 2016 09:02 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you like it! Marsh isn't showy (except when it comes to murder methods) but she has her moments.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


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