Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh – a classic story of Roderick Allen investigating a small community affected by a mysterious spring

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Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh

A classic Roderick Alleyn novel is usually a good read, and this one contains a character who has been a long term friend, or rather fearsome tutor. The water of the title is in a Cornish village, Portcarrow, and the whole story revolves around a spring that brings apparent healing and a lot of trouble as a community seizes on its commercial opportunities. Originally published in 1964, it is a book of its time in some respects, but the twists in the events are genuine surprises, and it takes a lot of imagination and clever work by Alleyn and his associates to sort out the suspects in a small community. Raising some interesting points of the time as some of the attitudes to women and children with problems, it is also a challenging novel in its context. The setting is so well described that it is almost visual, and this is altogether an interesting novel of crime and detection. The creation of characters was definitely one of Marsh’s greatest strengths, and she manages to cram such a variety of well delineated people in this book that it possibly explains her love of the stage in filling a cast of characters. This is a fascinating book of detection and more in the fine tradition of classic crime writing.

Chapter One is a “Prelude” in which the story of a young boy is recalled. Wally is a boy who is from a difficult home and has extra problems, but at the moment he is being bullied because of his hands which are covered in warts. Sobbing, he runs to a spring where a mysterious Green Lady tells him to wash them in the water. Within hours the warts mysteriously disappear, which gives rise to much local gossip. The local pub is the scene of one such discussion, where the landlord is the alcoholic Major Barrimore whose debts are mounting. Miss Cost is a local shopkeeper, who instantly claims that her asthma is cured. There is much publicity about the claims, and the spring is promoted as a healing spot. Various people are quick to take advantage commercially, and many visitors arrive. Meanwhile Alleyn is summoned to an interview with his old tutor, a Miss Pride, who has inherited the island where the spring is situated, and who is determined to close down all exploitation, fearing for the credulous who may be deceived when most desperate. Alleyn is concerned for her as she makes a visit, realizing the vested interests at stake, but the situation is far more complex than he realizes.

The huge cast of named characters in this book are so well described that it is easy to work out who is involved at any stage. Two younger people become involved, and Patrick and Jenny are useful observers and agents during the investigations that soon become necessary. This vivid story brings in so much of the time in which it is written, such as the difficulties of living in a small community where gossip is so insidious, and normally capable people are caught up into all sorts of difficulties as a result. Miss Emily Pride is a determined lady, and Alleyn’s fear mixed with concern for her is particularly memorable. Fans of Marsh’s Alleyn stories will enjoy this episode, and those who are discovering her writing for the first time will also find much to consider in this novel.

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