Thu
Jan 22 2015 12:00pm

Ngaio Marsh on Race: From Caricatures to Characters

Ngaio Marsh was not, at first blush, a racially insensitive writer. A queen of the golden age of detective fiction, Marsh published 32 novels featuring her upper class detective Roderick Alleyn. Her first book, A Man Lay Dead, was published in 1934; her last, Light Thickens, in 1982. Over a 50 year span, themes of race and class permeated all of her books, but it was remarkable that as early on as 1934, Marsh chose to create characters from diverse ethnic, racial and national backgrounds, investing them with heart and life.

True, many of these characters are little more than caricatures. Think of Alleyn’s manservant, the Russian Vassily, or indeed any of the Russian characters in A Man Lay Dead. Or the mafia vendetta that fueled the plot of Photo Finish, broadly sketching the histrionic opera singer Isabella Sommita, and her devious servants, Marco and Maria. Or the distaste for her character Carlos Rivera, that pervades every paragraph of Swing Brother Swing. The Austrian-German characters in Death and the Dancing Footman are untrustworthy, the French count who is a suspect in Death in Ecstasy is accorded greater respect because of his title, but he too is slippery and oily, whereas the unspeakable Arab in Spinsters in Jeopardy, is lustful and lascivious, making dreadful advances upon Alleyn’s own wife.

But there is no denying that Ngaio Marsh was conscious of a greater world, and of experiences that differed from her own. Her most sensitive treatment of race is reserved for the Maori people of her native New Zealand. In Colour Scheme, she proves herself to be fully conversant with the taboos and traditions of Maori culture, a culture she treats respectfully, even as she diminishes her Maori characters, Huia and Eru Saul. However, she clearly sees the Maori chief, Rua Te Kahu, as a figure of importance, and provides a fascinating look at Maori rituals.

The two mysteries where Marsh confronts race most directly are Black as he’s Painted, and Clutch of Constables. Both books depend heavily on black characters, with the former imbued with the colonial attitudes of the day, as Alleyn must protect an African potentate from his own naive impulses, while the latter is Marsh at her most sympathetic. Black as he’s Painted falls easily within the category that influential critic Edward Said identified as Orientalist, and as such, it’s the less interesting of the two books. Clutch of Constables, by contrast, is a riveting mystery with a mesmerizing cast of characters, as seen through the lens of Alleyn’s wife, Troy.

A famous painter, Troy embarks on a river cruise with several strangers. One of these is Dr. Natouche, a man whose father is an Ethiopian who married an Englishwoman. Troy herself has no qualms about race. She views Dr. Natouche as a man of exceptional dignity and distinction, finding his dark skin attractive. When she sketches him as a figure of the Zodiac, it is as a “splendour in the firmament.” Her interactions with Dr. Natouche are those of equals, and she finds unpalatable the rejection of several of the other characters, who express offensive and racist views, such as that when black people settle in a neighbourhood, it turns into a slum.

A fellow passenger, Hazel Rickerby-Carrick, is equally distressing to Troy with her bull-in-a-china-shop attitude toward Natouche. Hazel is overly nice to Natouche, insisting that he is no different from any of them. And here’s where the story becomes interesting—because Troy insists that Natouche’s blackness does make him different—but in the sense of his history and experiences, not because he is racially inferior.

However, by the end of the mystery, Marsh reverts to the attitudes of her day. When Natouche is wrongly accused of having murdered Hazel, his civility and dignity desert him. In his own words, the lie makes him “behave like the savage they all thought [him],” by expressing his rage physically. Marsh’s treatment of this rage is ambiguous—is it innate to Natouche’s blackness? Alleyn suspects that his wife will find Natouche all the more paintable as a subject, for it.

Marsh’s handling of race was problematic even in her best, most enlightened books. But the fact that she struggled with these issues at all, sets her ahead of her contemporaries.

 

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Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She is a former adjunct law professor and was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women. A British-born Canadian, Khan now lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband. The Unquiet Dead is her first novel.

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82 comments
Denise Duvall
4. catpers
Ngaio Marsh was my favourite.I loved the PBS series based on her books too. Wish they did more episodes of Allen Mysteries.
kent w. smith
5. bodacious
Her stories were a delight to read. I look forward to reading an author I am not familiar with. Thank you.
Sherry Schwabacher
6. sherrykaraoke
Thanks for the interesting examination of Marsh's attitudes towards race. I look for ward to rereading her with this in mind.
Carolyn Dileo
9. cbdileo
All my yes and thanks for the opportunity!
10. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
12. Tandi Cortez-Rios
Sounds like a great read. Thanks for the chance!
Chi Shannon
15. anastasiafall
I'm intrigued :) Throwing my namein the big hat :)
16. Dawn Katzoff
looks great
Cindy Hipolito
20. mysuccess
This is a new author to me. Very interested in getting to become more familiar with the writer's work.
Janice Santillo
24. themommazie
sounds like a really interesting book. Would love to read.
Julie Link
25. euchre35
THis post made this book one that I definitely have on my "to read" list
Linda Knowles
27. strigoivii
Would love to read this, always looking to check new authors.
Irene Menge
28. Goldenmane
Interesting insight into unfamiliar cultures and country. I will have to find this book.
J E
33. munchonbunnies
o
Jeffrey Malis
35. bravejam
Excellent article! Looking forward to reading more... Thank you for the opportunity!
Sab Edwards
36. binabug
I'd love to read this then give my opinion if its on goodreads etc
Marjorie Manharth
37. mmanharth
Please enter me, too! Would love to read this.
Martha Gifford
38. seeword
Great post! I'd love to read The Unquiet Dead.
Beverly Jackson
39. bajackson
Interesting post. I am looking forward to reading The Unquiet Dead.
Andrew Kuligowski
40. KuligowskiAndrew
It is difficult to deal with race - or any socialogical issue - in historic literature. The temptations to apply current standards to those of the time is far too great. (Does the presence of the "N" word render Huckleberry Finn a racist work? Did Arthur Upfield treat Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte with any less respect even though he had the character lament his status as a "half-caste"?) Thanks for this thought-provoking post.
Kris Kaminski
41. kjkski
love Marsh! have many of hers from the fifties
Michael Carter
42. rubydog
Sounds great and I'd love to win.
Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Wilifred Alire
43. walire
With that interesting post I'll go back and reread Black as he’s Painted, and Clutch of Constables.
teresa sopher
45. tas58
I've never looked at Ngaio's writing from that perspective before. Also, the new release book looks intriguing.
46. Barbara Raeuber
I would love to read a book by this author!
Kristy Madden
47. Darkjunebug
Ngaio Marsh is one of those author's I've meant to read more of because I've loved her short stories in many anthologies and the wonderful Allyn mystery series. Her mysteries are so well-plotted with unexpected twists. I'd love to read the free book and others. Her racial attitudes still seem a bit more modern than Agatha Christie's who made colonialism seem pretty exotic. These kind of attitudes do seem to change incrimentally and Marsh did her part to advance the dialogue.
Barbara Fish
49. Barb Fish
This book sounds fascinating! Please send it to me!
charles j hauser jr
50. admiral
I have read quite a few of Nagaio Marsh's mysteries and every time I am reminded that the best msytery writers of all time are women. Sorry, guys, and I'm a guy too, but for me that's the truth. Forget about Agatha, wonder that she is, and think Tey, Atwood Taylor, Roberts Rinehardt. Sayers, and company. They are all wonderful.
Heather Martin
51. CrystalMirror
I agree that the fact she confronted race at all makes her ahead of her time, but judging her by our modern day values is unfair. To judge the way she handled race, one must look at the values of her time, and country.
53. Melissa Hurst Smith
count me in
Susan Pertierra
54. orchidlady01
I like reading about different races and cultures.
Andrew Beck
56. queerbec
Khan offers a great analysis of Marsh's early work and her country's attitudes on race and how that impacted her characters and plots. It would be interesting to see how Khan creates characters and plot in her new book, which appears to be the start of a new series.
Ronald Roseborough
58. Ronrose1
I love to read new series openers. Count me in.
Margot Core
59. AnnaZed
Interesting post, and I like Marsh a lot. Still, even for the era her race attitudes have never (in aggregate) struck me as progressive.
Melissa Keith
61. melly801
Ms. Marsh's characters make me want to read her books. They all sound wicked cool. I can't wait to read "The Unquiet Dead". Just in case you didn't hear that...I CAN'T WAIT TO READ, THE UNQUIET DEAD. How's that for unquiet? :-)
Patrick Murphy
62. Ditch
I have not read and NZ crime fiction so its time to address the issue
EMMA L HORTON
63. EMMAHORTON
THIS WOULD MAKE FOR SOME GREAT READING ON A SNOWY WINTERY DAY .... LIKE THE COMING WEEKEND
66. Larissa
Always looking for a new author!
Timothy Anderson
70. lycoan
I've been craving a good mystery to read beside the fire.
Karen Terry
71. bblol65
I love mysteries that involves race and how race affects a murder mystery.
Charlene Roberson
76. TXCharley
I've got to say, once again you have made me take a second look at books I had thought I knew!!
77. Betty C
I'd love to have this. This is my favorite reading genre.
Betty Curran
78. willitara
Just realized I hadn't logged in. Now to do it right!!
Heather Cowley
80. choochoo
What a pretty Ngaio Marsh collection! Which color was the best?
Donna Jacoby
81. Donna Jacoby
This is my kind of book. Thank you for the giveaway!
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