Saturday, July 2, 2011

Good Short Fiction: Death on the Air (Ngaio Marsh)

Title: Death on the Air
Author: Ngaio Marsh (Edith Ngaio Marsh)

Where I read it: The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (edited by Patricia Craig)

On the 25th of December at 7:30 a.m. Mr. Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his wireless set.

Chief Detective-Inspector Roderick Alleyn investigates the death of a man who was apparently electrocuted by his own radio. As it becomes clear that this wasn't an accident, Alleyn needs to sort through a houseful of suspects including the wife and children, servants and employees, and friends of the family. Septimus Tonks was a cruel tyrannical man with no shortage of people who feared and despised him. Alleyn's investigation uncovers secret relationships, dysfunctions, and the wreckage of an unhappy home.

Some reasons to read it

  • Marsh attends to the technical details of the crime and to the delicate dance of timing and opportunity that makes it so difficult to pinpoint the murderer. What's most compelling about her story though are the characters and the household dynamics.

  • The precision of the crime contrasts with the messiness of the people. Marsh reveals to us these wounded people, and the man who liked to grind them under his thumb. Sometimes the story only suggests things that are all the more disturbing for not being entirely exposed. You wouldn't find this family sitting around the tree opening presents together.
    The radio hummed, gathered volume, and found itself.
    'No-oel, No-o-el,' it roared.

    At the same time, they can be decent to each other in small subdued ways, Mr. Tonks excluded. Unhappy or damaged as they are, the different family members and employees understand each other. Love can grow in unforgiving soil, like a weed that's difficult to uproot.

  • The story is absorbing, both for the mystery and for the character portraits. I wonder at what stage Alleyn solved the crime and knew who did it; he's a man who seems to keep his cards close to his chest. Certain conversations gain significance at the end, after everything is revealed.
    "I'm the least suspicious man alive. I'm merely being tidy."


Other recommended tales from The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories are Great Aunt Allie's Flypapers (by P.D. James) and these stories here.