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Posted on 30 Apr 2019 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

NGAIO MARSH and STELLA DUFFY Money in the Morgue: The new Inspector Alleyn mystery. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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It’s 84 years since Dame Ngaio Marsh published the first Roderick Alleyn novel. Now he’s back, in a crime novel outlined by Marsh during the Second World War and completed by Stella Duffy in 2018.

Dame Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealand crime writer and theatre director, born in Christchurch some time between 1895 and 1900 (it’s reported that her father was somewhat remiss in registering her birth). When she died in that city in 1982, she left behind a few chapters and some sparse notes for the story that would become Money in the Morgue. Stella Duffy was asked to take that material and, with the assistance of editors and experts, turn it into the 33rd Roderick Alleyn novel.

Ngaio Marsh has always been regarded as one of the great ladies of the Golden Age of mystery writing, in the same category as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. Spanning 48 years from the release of A Man Lay Dead in 1934 to Light Thickens in 1982, the Roderick Alleyn series was variously located in England and New Zealand, within settings from farms to theatres, although Marsh’s theatre-director background did mean she concentrated a large number of the novels in that world.

Roderick Alleyn is a detective of the old school. A thinker, a quiet observer and an astute student of human nature, he’s also touchingly romantic, deeply attached to his wife of many years, Agatha Troy, and a good friend to his work colleague, the stoic Inspector Fox.

Money in the Morgue is set mid-Second World War in a secluded hospital in New Zealand, and Troy and Fox appear only as recipients of attempts at letters. Alleyn has been sent to this location undercover, on a mission of great secrecy, related to the war effort. The threat of a Japanese invasion of New Zealand is ever-present, and the hospital is both a civilian and military facility, used for recuperating soldiers, and the likelihood of espionage is worrying authorities locally and in Britain. Events are brought to a head rapidly when the local government paymaster is stranded with a large amount of cash, and a staff nurse returns to the hospital with a stash of gambling winnings. Locked in Matron’s safe for the night, the money goes missing as the hospital is cut off by a massive storm that downs phone lines and damages the only bridge out. Also missing is the body of a recently deceased elderly man:

It was quite obvious to Alleyn that when the porter had slapped his hand on the foot of the bag, bringing down the entire trolley, Kelly’s hand should have met the resistance of old Mr Brown’s feet, not the air at the empty end of an otherwise well-filled bag.

It’s a classic locked-room scenario, peopled by a largish cast of characters pulled into the story by a variety of believable circumstances and events. There’s Matron and Sister Comfort (Matron’s 2IC); in-house doctor Hughes; a couple of staff nurses – Sarah and Rosamund; Sergeant Bix of the military, taking the role of Alleyn’s usual offsider, Fox; a trio of convalescing soldiers and rule breakers; the deceased Mr Brown and his hapless nephew Sydney; one very shouty and put-out paymaster, Mr Glossop; hospital porter and odd-job man Kelly; Father O’Sullivan, the local vicar, come to minister to Mr Brown; background noise from patients, locals and other nursing staff; and tucked away in a private room, loath to out himself as a policeman, DCI Roderick Alleyn.

The investigation quickly becomes a multifaceted one. There’s the theft of the cash, the loss of Mr Brown’s body and, at the bottom of everything, possible espionage. The latter Alleyn tries very hard to keep quiet, right up until the end of the story when everything comes together to reveal all in a scene that Agatha Christie would have been proud to have produced, although it’s possible that some Golden Age writers might have baulked a little at the setting of a morgue carved into the side of a cliff in rural New Zealand:

Alleyn, having assured himself that Sarah was now safely in Hughes’s care, asked them all to step well away from the rock cavities. He too had heard the thumping and wrenching sounds and thought he knew what they meant. He looked about the morgue, and finally laid his hand on a heavy piece of wood, ridged across the top, propped up alongside the main door at the top of the steep slope that led outside.

There have been a lot of examples in recent times of writers stepping into another’s long-running series, sometimes with a partial manuscript available, sometimes starting afresh with the characters. It can’t be an easy undertaking but combine that with an historical timeframe and a location that’s integral to the plot, and it must be very tricky.

Granted, it’s been quite a while since anybody had the opportunity of enjoying fresh time in the company of DCI Roderick Alleyn, but everything here seems to slot into place effortlessly. Marsh always had a slightly formal tone to her writing and a preferred structure, and the set-up was often the major part of the story. All of these aspects are present in this outing, as is, most importantly, a slight sense of tongue-in-cheek when it comes to many of the characters. The payroll master serves as the blustering buffoon; one young nurse is serious, caring, confused in love, the other is the slightly frivolous, devil-may-care-hiding-real-fragility one; there is the haunted young man and the hapless young man. The inestimable Sergeant Bix steps into Inspector Fox’s shoes with aplomb. The villain is also frequently not evil, but terribly misguided and propelled by weakness, circumstance and time:

Alleyn continued, hopefully and carefully, ‘I understand there has been an awful lot of gambling going on, particularly among you younger men. You were in debt to these people, weren’t you? They said you had to pay up. There was no more time and they threatened you, they demanded the money now.’

Getting the terminology right and keeping the dialogue consistent with the period, while dodging the pitfalls that come with settings from the past, can’t be easy, either. Then there’s the difficulty associated with getting the thinking of the character right for the time. It must have been particularly challenging here as Alleyn has always been a bit different: faithful friend and husband, sensitive and loving, longing for home, hearth and family, he is always restrained and considered. Duffy has continued those aspects of his character, and set him in a location with a cast that fits the requirements of the Ngaio Marsh style  perfectly. The plot is cleverly executed, relying on understanding the significance of a series of discoveries played out in the reader’s view.

There’s something very appealing about the idea that this is a novel seeded by the mind of the original author. It carries with it a real sense that it’s part of the series because it should always have been there, and comes, therefore, with a feeling of regard for the original characters, and respect for Dame Ngaio Marsh’s brilliant body of work.

Val McDermid is quoted on the front of the novel saying: ‘I defy readers to see the joins.’ I don’t think you can see the joins, nor can you find any differences in the Roderick Alleyn written by his creator Dame Ngaio Marsh in 32 books between 1934 and 1982 and the one in The Money in the Morgue written by Stella Duffy in 2018.

Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy Money in the Morgue: The new Inspector Alleyn mystery HarperCollins 2019 PB 336pp $19.99

Karen Chisholm blogs from, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy Money in the Morgue from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.