Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Dead Water”

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Wally Trehern, a mentally “simple” boy in Portcarrow, has been undergoing severe teasing from the other children because his hands are covered with awful, ugly warts in 1963’s Dead Water by Ngaio Marsh. Running to the local spring in tears, he puts his hands in the water, but he still has the same warts. Then, his eyes full of tears, Wally looks up and sees only what he calls The Green Lady. She tells him to plunge his hands back in the water, and the next day Wally shows his hands to his teacher, Jenny Williams, astonishing her by having completely clean hands. His only explanation is that The Green Lady and the springs healed him.

Soon, word gets out throughout Britain that the springs have healing powers, and the island of Portcarrow, which has been slowly dying economically, becomes a thriving center where people of all illnesses and troubles flock to try to get healed of their various issues. In excitement over the opportunities created by Wally’s story, Miss Elsbeth Cost, a middle aged lady, makes the claim immediately that the springs have healed her from her severe asthma. Soon she opens Ye Olde Gift Shoppe to pedal her wares, all related to The Green Lady and the miracle.

Fast forward two years, and Jenny Williams, who has spent the intervening time teaching in Paris, comes back to Portcarrow to be greeted by Patrick Ferrier, the step-son of Major Barrymore, the owner of the local inn. She is shocked to see the crass commercialism of the island, with Wally’s being used to promote the healing powers of the spring, despite his not truly knowing what is happening. Miss Cost seems to be taking the lead in the promotions, such as fixing up the house where Wally lives with his continually drunk and worthless parents. She also prepares especially to put on the “first annual” festival to celebrate the 2nd anniversary of the healing of Wally’s hands.

Now enters Miss Emily Pride, a specialist in linguistics and pronunciation who years earlier had taught the now-Detective Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn to speak French like a native. At the age of 83, she has just inherited the island from her sister and is horrified by the commercialism, but even more so by the un-Christian mysticism that has been propogated by the belief in the healing power of the water of Pixie Falls, as they have come to be known. Miss Emily goes to Portcarrow against the advice of Alleyn after she receives some anonymous letters threatening her if she tries to change anything. The whole island feels animosity against Miss Pride, as she determines to shut down all the commercial activities related to Pixie Falls. When Miss Pride gets serious death threats, Alleyn gets stuck traveling to Portcarrow to try to deal with the situation. And the Sunday that he and Miss Pride are scheduled to leave the island, he goes out that morning and spots the body of an elderly woman under a black umbrella. No, it is not Miss Pride. It is Miss Cost, and she has been struck on her head with a rock and drowned. Being a superintendent from the Yard, Alleyn gets stuck having to work on the case professionally even though it is his vacation time from his job. But one worry is whether the murderer killed the actual intended victim it whether he still needs to protect Miss Pride.

The title of Dead Water refers literally to a period of time twice a day when the tide goes out, turning the island into a place connected to the mainland. During this time, which the locals call “dead water,” people can drive or walk across the usually water-covered land to get to the island, and the time of dead water helps to determine the identity of the killer. But the title refers to more than just the literal dead water. Miss Cost dies from being hit on the head and drowned in the spring, hence “dead water.” Further, the water in Pixie Falls is supposed to provide healing for people’s physical illnesses as well as the financial health of the island village. However, we see that this healing property is more of an illusion than reality. Water plays a key role throughout the whole book. Besides Pixie Falls and the water surrounding the island, the island experiences significant storms, such as the one that prevents Miss Pride from being able to leave Portcarrow when Alleyn is trying to get her to safety after being concerned that she was the intended target.

The plot keeps the book moving. I appreciate the fact that Alleyn makes his first appearance early in the book too, despite the fact that Marsh usually doesn’t bring him in until halfway through her books, after the murder. But as is common with Marsh’s books, it is the characters that truly drive this book. Most mystery novels focus just on the plot, but Marsh helps us get to know each of the main characters, basing the solution on what we have come to know about each person.

The characters have clever details to them that make them seem real. The book clearly seems to describe Miss Elsbeth Cost and Miss Emily Pride, who have names that serve as descriptors of their true natures. Miss Cost spends her time focusing on her gift shop and figuring out how to profit from the healing power of the springs. On the other hand, Miss Emily Pride shows lots of personal pride about her life and her island. She decides that she knows what is best for everyone and imposes her own will upon everyone else around them. In the midst of all this, we see Wally pop up throughout the book, showing everyone his hands. He clearly has very weak mental processes, unable to do much more than recite the same story of the Green Lady, who, curiously, no one in Portcarrow seems interested in finding the identity of.

James Saxon perform the audiobook of Dead Water. He does a good job of keeping the book moving and giving us an approach to the book that we could enjoy. He does mispronounce the name of Roderick Alleyn, calling him Al-lain instead of Allen, which Marsh clearly told us in other writings is Allen.

The book Dead Water is a good example of Ngaio Marsh’s genius with characters. We find ourselves falling in love with Wally and wondering, with the others, whether the killer accidentally mistook Miss Cost for Miss Pride. I find this an interesting book with four stars.

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

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