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.