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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable extremes, 25 Aug 2008
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This review is from: The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries [DVD] [2007] (DVD)
Dame Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) wrote 32 detective novels between 1934 and 1982, and is generally regarded as one of the greatest crime novelists of the 'Golden Age', often being bracketed with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham and my personal favourite, Josephine Tey. Marsh carefully avoided amateur sleuths, recognising that crimes are solved by policemen, not old ladies or eccentric Belgians. Her plotting was brilliant, but at the same time her writing elevated the crime novel from country house puzzle to rounded novel.

Though all of Marsh's books are pretty good, some (such as 'Death in a White Tie', 'Died in the Wool', 'Swing Brother Swing' and 'Surfeit of Lampreys' ) are much better than others. This BBC dramatisation of eight novels follows this variability in an uncanny way. Some of the early episodes are pretty dreadful, but later productions are extraordinarily good. The good news is that latter are really excellent, and the triumphs outnumber the turkeys. I was half inclined to give up after the first two episodes, but am glad I didn't; the later episodes are marvellous.

Let's start with the turkeys. I'm not going to be too critical of 'A Man Lay Dead', because this was Marsh's first (and, in my opinion, weakest) book. But the televised version is pretty poor, with everyone giving suspicious looks at camera like stock villains from silent-era movies.

Things get much worse with 'The Nursing Home Murder'. In the original, a right-wing Home Secretary invites the wrath of anarchists by planning draconian legislation against them. The television production moves the story from 1935 to 1947. Now we have the bizarre spectacle of a far right minister in a left-wing government (led by a recognisable Clement Attlee) trying to acquire the A-bomb which is supposed to have some relevance to Palestine/Israel. His opponents now are not Marsh's believable anarchists of the 1930s but Israeli freedom fighters, who are incensed by his plan - or perhaps they're just confused; I was. All in all, this episode is pretty dreadful, and would certainly have Marsh devotees angry at the alteration of her excellent plot.

But then things start getting better. Much better. 'Final Curtain' - a novel set against the gothic background of the gaunt ancestral home of an aged Shakespearean actor and his dysfunctional family - is where the series takes off with an excellent, 'straight-from-the plot' dramatisation of the book.

Thereafter, episodes scale new heights of excellence. 'Death in a White Tie' is a superbly crafted presentation of Marsh's superb high society novel. By now, the acting is universally excellent, with Patrick Malahide seeming to grow into the Alleyn role, ably supported by William Simons' outstanding portrayal of Fox.

'Scales of Justice' is an outstanding dramatisation set in a beautiful rural location (recognising the locations gave me added enjoyment from this episode). 'Dead Water' is a tour de force, and the series ends on a far higher level than seemed possible early on.

The late 1940s settings seem authentic (I wasn't around then, but it rings true). If you ignore the first two episodes, it's a great series. I'd score the last five episodes at five stars each, which much more than outweighs the earlier lapses. Recommended.
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Initial post: 8 May 2010 10:13:41 BDT
Red Rivere says:
Thanks for this insightful, informative and helpful review.
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