These are happy times for fans of Forgotten Books. There is much more interest in them now than there was a few years ago, no doubt due to the success of recent reprints. The media has cottoned on, and I've had the unfamiliar experience of talking about the Golden Age three times in the past week. Once for Channel 4 TV's Sunday Brunch - to be screened on 27 December - talking about The Golden Age of Murder, the Detection Club and Sherlock.. Once for a Japanese TV documentary, talking about Agatha Christie. And, yesterday, for Radio 4's Open Book, about Silent Nights and other Christmas mysteries. I shall never be a truly confident performer, yet these things really are fun to do - in small quantities, that is, as they are certainly time-consuming.
Now to Ngaio Marsh. She has long been regarded as one of the "Queens of Crime", and I started reading her in my teens, after I ran out of books by Christie and Sayers. I read and enjoyed quite a few of them, but a couple rather sagged in the middle,and in the last twenty-five years I've read little by Marsh. I decided it was time to give her another go, and The Nursing Home Murder, first published in 1935, is my Forgotten Book today.
According to Margaret Lewis, author of a superb biography of Marsh, this was her best-selling book, and although I've read mixed reports about this story, I enjoyed it. There was no mid-narrative sag, and on the contrary the story gained from brevity, and was crisp and uncluttered. Social conditions and preoccupations of the time feature strongly, and are integral to the plot, not mere window-dressing. Definitely a cut above most of the crime fiction being written in the mid-Thirties.
I say this even though Marsh dips a toe into politics, which is so often a mistake (although one quite often made by authors then and now.) Her treatment of political issues is extremely superficial, but not as inept as is sometimes found in Golden Age novels. Sir Derek O'Callaghan is the Home Secretary, tasked with piloting through Parliament some anti-anarchist legislation, making him a target for political assassins. He collapses with peritonitis and is rushed into a nursing home for an operation. Here he has the peculiar misfortune to be surrounded by members of a medical team who wish him ill. He meets his end as a result of a lethal dose of hyoscine.
Suspicions switches briskly from one suspect to another. This is one of those classic crime novels which focus on a single crime, but Marsh's handling of the material is assured, and my interest never flagged. Incidentally, the book was originally published under her name and that of Henry Jellett,a medical man who advised her on the technicalities of the storyline. Sad to say, my paperback edition of the novel contains no mention whatsoever of Henry. Rather a shame - he deserves credit for contributing to an enjoyable traditional mystery.