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Murder in the Morgue by Ngaio Marsh & Stella Duffy – book review

Ngaio Marsh c1935: she and Stella Duffy share similar strengths. Photo/Henry Herbert Clifford/Supplied

Stella Duffy’s move into Ngaio Marsh territory delivers a pleasing revival.

Hooray for the resurrection of Dame Ngaio Marsh’s stiff-upper-lip Scotland Yard Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. He’s been missing in action for nearly four decades, but he is reborn in Stella Duffy’s Money in the Morgue.

London-based Duffy, who grew up in New Zealand, shares the byline for this jolly jape with Marsh, our “Queen of Crime”. Between 1934 and 1982, Marsh wrote 32 novels featuring Alleyn, but most were set in her genteel version of England. Only four were located in New Zealand; now there are five.

When Duffy was approached by the writer’s estate and HarperCollins to take on this project, her starting point was three chapters and a note that Marsh had scribbled on the back of a Shakespeare script when she was driving ambulances during World War II in Christchurch. These are now in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Duffy’s writing moves the narrative forward seamlessly, most likely because she and Marsh share similar strengths as crime-writers and theatre practitioners. Both conceive of the novel as theatre: a cast of characters is listed at the beginning; the single location – in this case a hospital for invalid soldiers – and its “backdrop” are described in detail; there is a reference to Alleyn as director.

A travelling government pay clerk is forced by a storm to stay overnight at the hospital. The formidable (naturally) matron suggests he put his £1000 payroll money in her office safe.

As an old man lies dying, another man is trying to write a letter to his wife on the other side of the world, but as always, he can’t express himself. Meet DCI Alleyn, on an undercover mission to source radio messages being pinged out to a Japanese submarine sighted on the east coast.

Rain pours, thunder claps, the river floods. There is a death, the theft of the payroll, a disappearing corpse, interrogations and an all-night pursuit of two parallel cases: murder and espionage. And some new-fangled bits about war being wrong and Māori respect for the land.

As thrillers go, Murder in the Morgue is as savage as a warm bath. The characters are fairly vaudevillian, as were Marsh’s, and Duffy has great fun with the language: roses have a “spendthrift fragrance”; Alleyn has “long fingers” and “long hands”. He scolds a young officer with the words, “Now then, young cub”. But as dawn approaches, the end is nigh. Duffy’s denouement is ingenious stagecraft, with Alleyn dashing about with “a sure-footed fury” followed by a nice cup of tea.

Thankfully, our hero hasn’t changed a bit. Cases cleared, he tries, again, to write to his wife, but emotional repression wins the day. How those two ever got married is the real mystery.

MURDER IN THE MORGUE, by Ngaio Marsh & Stella Duffy (Collins Crime Club, $37.99)