Title: The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Author: Joan Stevens

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1966

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Sylvia Johnston

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965


Detection. The doyen of our New Zealand detective-story writers is of course Ngaio Marsh, whose stories were noted in chapter three. She remains queen of her own territory. There are only two challenges from New Zealand women writers, though neither threatens to dethrone her. The most direct is that from Elizabeth Messenger, who has written four crime novels, all set in this country. Her first, Murder Stalks the Bay, 1958, is her best.*

What is the most effective procedure for the local murder story? Surely, to exploit what our setting offers, not to import imitation plots from abroad. Smuggling of diamonds, of atomic bombs, of space secrets, is not our cup of tea. Our murders need to be cosy and credible within our normal set-up. It is in this respect that Murder page 93 Stalks the Bay is—like Ngaio Marsh's Died in the Wool —so successful. Agatha Christie picks a snow-bound Christmas house party for her puzzles, so as to limit the clues and the suspects, as well as to provide a smallish group whose personalities can quickly be outlined in action and conversation. The reader can then form his theories for himself. Elizabeth Messenger appreciates the value, on exactly similar grounds, of a holiday group in a Sounds bay, cut off by road and engine trouble. She caters for the overseas reader's need of explanations by the old device of making the heroine an English girl to whom her hostess can describe such things as party-line telephones, the "bush", the glow-worms and gold prospecting. The heat, the claustrophobic effect of isolation, the fraying of nerves, are well evoked. Swimming, boating, fishing, provide useful plot movements. Even the method of murder is local, for one victim is strangled with a teatowel. Finally, Mary Scott and Joyce West collaborated in a mystery with a racing background, Fatal Lady, 1960. It makes use both of New Zealand opportunities and of the standard devices. It is, however, less a detective puzzle than a romance with a plot involving murder and detection.

* For comment on novels published after 1960, see chapter eight.