The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965
Dorothy Eden. As we have seen, overseas entertainers sometimes set a story here. One such is Elizabeth Salter, an Australian, who has clearly been reading Ngaio Marsh. Another is Tom Gurr, who fictionalised the Parker-Hulme murder.
It is not these, but Dorothy Eden, who comes nearest to a successful challenge to Ngaio Marsh, though not on the same ground. Her line is not puzzle, but suspense, centred upon a heroine. This is, of course, a traditional type, pioneered in the late eighteenth century by Mrs Ann Radcliffe, whose The Mysteries of Udolpho established the Gothic tale of terror. Mrs Radcliffe's Emily goes through some hair-raising experiences, defenceless, alone, unfriended, in a foreign land; only at the very end do the hero's comforting arms enfold her.
Settings, conventions of behaviour, prose style, all have changed, but the core remains, the build up of suspense by devices variously contrived. A good exponent of the genre today is that 'feminine John Buchan', Mary Stewart. One of Ngaio Marsh's titles would do for the class as a whole, Spinisters in Jeopardy. Sometimes the heroine is not a spinster, but a widow, or a wife temporarily parted from her protector, but the effect is the same.
This is Dorothy Eden's type of story. Five of her novels have New Zealand settings. The Schoolmaster's Daughters, 1948, and Walk into My Parlour, 1947, are not thrillers, but suggest that if she had so chosen she might have given us a proper novel dealing with home tensions among womenfolk. After 1948, she moved into the suspense story, using the New Zealand background for Cat's Prey, 1952, Lamb to the Slaughter, 1953, and Bride by Candlelight, 1954. These three page 94 entertainments are not among her snappiest, but are very readable. Like Elizabeth Messenger, who may have learnt the lesson from her, she utilises local possibilities. One story dumps the English heroine down by a bush bach on the West Coast Road in the rain, with a missing friend, candles only for illumination, keas, glaciers, isolation, and three men to speculate about. Another takes for heroine an English girl who makes the voyage out here alone after the war to marry a soldier from whom she has been parted for several years. Add the possibilities of a change in looks owing to wounds, a little wicked juggling, a snowstorm, a power failure, and some sinister old women. It is quite a good story. Dorothy Eden's heroines suffer, rather than act, and she is sometimes hard put to it to account for their adventures; often a bit of direct action would be welcome, but that would short circuit the plot, which naturally wouldn't do!
Ngaio Marsh is read by every kind of person, male and female, blockhead and egghead. Dorothy Eden's market is obviously more restricted, because the novel of romantic presuppositions has never had the general intellectual appeal of the detective puzzle. Moreover she has none of Ngaio Marsh's champagne sparkle. But her success in her genre is a considerable one.
(Topics for Study and Discussion are given in the Appendix.)