Back in March, Fearless Admin wrote about a Guardian article announcing that a “new” Inspector Alleyn novel, Money in the Morgue (I keep wanting to type Murder in the Morgue), was shortly to be released. The book is based on notes and a partial draft left by Dame Ngaio Marsh and was completed by mystery author Stella Duffy. Recently, I was able to get the book from the library and I eagerly read it, wanting to see how much of Marsh’s original voice and flavour would be retained, and if Alleyn would be recognizable as Alleyn. Oh, and I was also very curious if I could imagine Mr. Malahide’s Alleyn dealing with the events of the book. 😉
The book plays a bit fast and loose with timing, as Marsh’s novels usually do. World War II is on and we’re dropped into the action at a military hospital on Mount Seager, New Zealand. The hospital is small and isolated – it can only be reached by a single road and a somewhat unreliable bridge over a raging river – and it’s populated with a diverse cast of characters. The patients are a combination of convalescing soldiers and civilians under the care of the no-nonsense Matron and her nursing staff. There’s the rather starchy Sister Comfort (who is anything but), good-time-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold Rosamund Farquharson, steady and reliable Sarah Warne, the good-looking but troubled Dr. Luke Hughes, the rather obsequious Father O’Sullivan, the dying, elderly Mr. Brown and his sullen grandson Sydney, obnoxious payroll officer Mr. Glossop, helpful Sergeant Bix, and Privates Sanders and Pawcett and Sergeant Brayling. As might be expected with a Marsh novel, each of them have their own tangled personal relationships and secrets that they’re reluctant to share with the others.
The Mysterious Patient in the Private Room
There’s also a mysterious, unseen patient in the private room of the military convalescent ward. No one knows much about him, except that he’s rumoured to be a writer who’s been covering the war and had a breakdown as a result. We find out soon enough that it’s actually Alleyn, pretending to be an invalid as a cover story. He’s on some top secret business in New Zealand and has been asked to look into some strange radio signals that seem to coincide with the appearance of a Japanese submarine off the New Zealand coast. His wife Agatha Troy is back in England but never far from his thoughts, though he finds himself inexplicably stricken with writer’s block whenever he tries to write to her. He has a much easier time writing to Inspector Br’er Fox, although he can’t tell him much about exactly what he’s doing.
Alleyn is settled in to do a bit of spying – though I have to wonder how effective he can actually be while he stays cooped up in his room – when Glossop is unexpectedly marooned at Mt. Seager by a flat tire on his van, forcing him to stay the night and delaying payroll delivery to the other military hospitals in the area. And help is not immediately forthcoming, because a massive storm is approaching which is expected to wash out the bridge and knock down telephone lines. Matron offers to lock up Glossop’s payroll in her safe for the night for safekeeping. Coincidentally, Matron also confiscates Rosamund’s £100 racetrack winnings and locks them up as well, to Rosamund’s consternation, just in time for the storm to hit.
First the Money, Then the Morgue
So, that’s the “money” part… now for the “morgue”. The storm is at its height, drenching Mt. Seager with torrential rain, with lighting and thunder crashing overhead. Glossop becomes increasingly paranoid about the payroll, so he decides to spend the night as close to Matron’s safe as possible to keep an eye on it. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to the reader (though it is to Glossop) that the money goes missing. Shortly thereafter, the first dead body turns up… and promptly goes missing as well, followed by another. Mt. Seager’s inhabitants are beginning to panic just a bit, so Alleyn is forced to reveal his true identity (though not his true purpose) and take on the case. But he’s operating on a tight deadline, too; he has to solve the mystery of the radio signals before the submarine makes its next appearance. Multi-tasking!
Familiar Situation, Unfamiliar Surroundings
So, we have one of Ngaio Marsh’s favourite situations: an isolated location, a small group of suspects, each of whom with potential motivations for committing the crime(s) all trapped together, strained personal relationships, murders and missing bodies, and Alleyn in the middle of it all, reluctantly taking charge because he knows he’s the only one (and the best) available. The circumstances are familiar as is the set-up, so it certainly feels like an authentic Marsh novel; Stella Duffy does an excellent job of assuming and fleshing out Marsh’s narrative. I would even say that she improves on it in a few ways. We get more glimpses of Alleyn’s internal life than we usually get; there’s more of a sense of his loneliness for Troy, his frustration at being unable to express his emotions to her, his desire to be back in more familiar surroundings with Fox, and his own very human doubts over whether he can get the job done. But even as Alleyn feels himself to be an outsider (his name and reputation precede him, even in wartime New Zealand, setting him apart straightaway), we see him bringing his considerable skills to bear in an environment that’s both familiar and foreign to him. Oh, and just for good measure, there are some completely unforeseen, bonkers twists thrown in in the home stretch to make things even more interesting.
I think Ms. Duffy did an excellent job giving us an Alleyn who behaves, feels, and sounds like Alleyn, and I’d love to see Mr. Malahide return as Alleyn for this mystery. The timeline might need a bit of work (maybe a Cold War setting instead?), but I could easily see him interacting with the characters and bringing his own personal warmth, charm, and style back to the character. Admin and I would both love to see an older Alleyn back in action, and a wartime murder/espionage story would be a great way for him to do it.