Monday, November 11, 2019

Dead Water

Dead Water (1963) by Ngaio Marsh takes us back to the village setting--this time a small fishing community at Portcarrow. It begins with a scene two years in the past when a young boy by the name of Wally Trehern experiences what seems to be a miraculous cure. Plagued by warts all over his hands, he has suffered the jeers and taunts of his schoolmates for years. On this occasion he runs away from them to a local spring where he encounters a lady in green who tells him to wash his hands in the spring water...and if he believes his warts will be cured. The next day his warts have fallen off as if by magic and soon the legend of the green lady and the newly christened "Pixie Falls" is spread. 

Mrs. Fanny Winterbottom , the current owner of the land where the spring is found has no problem with pilgrims coming to the site and the village making what profit they can from the magical waters. An entry fee is established, a gift shop is set up, and the local pub/inn begins turning a profit for the first time in recent memory. And then...two years later, Mrs. Winterbottom dies and her sister Miss Emily Pride, a French language expert, comes into possession. Miss Pride doesn't hold with commercializing people's belief in mystical cures. She sends messages to the village that all commercial enterprises connected to the spring must stop--she won't prevent folks from coming to the spring if they want to, but there will be no more advertisement and no more profiting from it. She also announces her intention to visit the area to see what exactly needs to be done to return the spring and surrounding land to its former condition.

Well...naturally this doesn't go down so well with those who have made a business of the thing and Miss Pride receives threats made of cut-up newsprint. So, she calls upon the help of one of her former pupils--Superintendent Roderick Alleyn. He advises her to give up the plan to visit Portcarrow and to conduct her business through an attorney. But Miss Pride is a determined woman and believes in facing up to one's obligations. She goes anyway...and is the victim of an assault (from rock-throwing) and more threats. Alleyn arrives in the village for the first (and, if Miss Pride has her way, only) Pixie Falls Festival and is just in time to discover the body of a middle-aged woman, knocked out and drowned at the spring. Surprisingly enough, it's not Miss Pride who has been murdered, but Elspeth Cost--a middle-aged woman who has been the driving force in the mystification and veneration of the spring. Was she, as it appears, mistaken for Miss Pride and then killed anyway to prevent her from identifying the attacker? Or were there reasons for someone to kill Miss Cost? Alleyn will have to sort that out in order to identify the killer.

This wound up being a middle-of-the road Marsh book for me. I had better memories of it (from my first reading 30ish years ago) than were realized in this go-round. The best of the book was Miss Emily Pride--even though she is well-named and pride almost goes before a fall. She is a determined and independent lady and it was nice to see Marsh portray a spinster in a more favorable light. I did appreciate her principled view of the supposed miracle cures. She didn't imply that they were fake, but she absolutely refused to be a party to anyone taking financial advantage of the situation. I was also amused by her relationship with Alleyn--it was fun to see him so disconcerted by his former French tutor. 

The book turns Alleyn into an action figure of sorts at the dramatic end--with the murderer bolting and Alleyn giving chase through a coastal storm and finding himself in danger of life. Not the usual drawing room summing up. With a fairly good plot (I didn't guess the murderer this time) and the exciting finish, this comes in at a solid  ★★.

Death = drowning 


Rick Mills said...

Thanks for the review. I have never read Ngaio Marsh, maybe one a long time ago. I am planning to read six of hers in 2020 for the Six Shooter challenge, and am working on obtaining them thru Paperback Swap. Cheers!

Bev Hankins said...

Rick: I read nearly all of hers from the library back when I was in junior high school or so. It's been fun going back and reading them in order.