You might say that the story began with a miracle - that is, if you are willing to believe that a young boy was cured of a badly disfiguring case of warts through bathing his hands in a stream. Of course, you'd have to believe the story young Wally told about a lady dressed in green who told him to wash his hands at the spring, and then go home and simply believe that he would be cured - and it would happen. While the doctor said such apparently random cures did happen sometimes and, in fact, were well-documented, he couldn’t really explain them. But there were some who saw a miracle at work and believed in the Green Lady. And there were others who saw in that same inexplicable healing a chance to build a huge commercial enterprise around the waters of the spring. And when the owner of the land decided to shut down the commercial enterprise...well, it's probably not a surprise that events would lead inevitably to murder. The full story is told in Dead Water, by Ngaio Marsh, and it's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the full review by clicking here.
The book opens with the story of Wally’s cure from his disfiguring warts. And we learn the reaction of many of the people living on a small island connected to the village of Portcarrow where the healing spring is located. There are skeptics, and a few opportunists – and one woman who is convinced that what happened was truly miraculous. She is Elspeth Cost, a woman who would have been described in an earlier time as a spinster of"a certain age," by which was meant a woman prone to fixations on religious beliefs, coupled with a fair amount of sexual ambivalence. Miss Cost runs a shop with all sorts of pretty awful items sold as memorabilia. She makes the entire area into a sort of shrine to the supposed curative powers of the water. She is organizing a big (and truly dreadful) festival for the second anniversary of Wally’s cure. In fact, Miss Cost is the only true believer behind the commercialization of these so-called miracle cures – and, as such, the most likely to be affected by Miss Emily Pride.
Miss Pride is the new owner of the island, having just inherited it, and horrified at what it has become. She announces to the islanders that she intends to shut down the commercial operation. The festival will be allowed to continue (as it’s too late to stop people from coming to Portcarrow to attend it) but it will be the last one. Commercial turnstiles (blocking the way to the spring and requiring visitors to pay for their pilgrimages) will be removed, and so forth.
For her pains, Miss Pride begins receiving death threats. Fortunately, she has confided her intentions – and the threats – to her old pupil, Superintendent Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard, who is not at all happy with Miss Pride’s insistence on doing things her own way.
Naturally, Miss Pride and Miss Cost clash immediately and violently over those plans – and it is worth pointing out that there are other frictions and confrontations involved among a surprisingly large cast. And, very soon, there is a murder – though there is considerable question about whether the murderer killed the intended victim. And Inspector Alleyn, who is on the scene in Portcarrow to keep an eye on his old teacher, Miss Pride, finds himself in charge of a particularly nasty case.
Ngaio Marsh is widely considered to be one of the so-called “crime queens” of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. She began writing in the 1930s, and she continued all the way into the early 1980s. Dead Water, written in the 1960s, is certainly well past the end of that Golden Age, but Marsh really did a lot of her best writing in those middle years, and Dead Water has a lot to recommend it.