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Ngaio Marsh

I read "Clutch of Constables" by Ngaio Marsh, a painter, theatrical actor and producer and outstanding mystery writer from New Zealand, who published 32 novels between 1934 and 1982, all of them featuring the police detective Roderick Alleyn and some of them also featuring his wife, Agatha Troy, who is a well-known painter. Ngaio, I found out from Wikipedia, is a Maori word, which is the name of a flowering tree and also an insect. It's my favorite author name. 

"Clutch of Constables," published in 1968, is only 200 pages, but it's full of delights — far more full than any contemporary popular novels I have read, which are, inevitably, much longer. It's striking to compare the quality of popular novels from the early and mid 20th century with those from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The writing is so much worse now, and at times it is laughably bad. I don't have a whole lot to compare, because after multiple disappointments, I mostly avoid contemporary novels, popular and literary. But, to generalize, they either seem forced and phony — such as Rachel Kushner's "The Flame Throwers," gushed over by the NY Times, a National Book Award finalist and so on, which hit one false note after another and painted a completely not-believable or credible or fun or satisfying portrait of life in Greenwich Village in the 1970s, then tacked on a dead-end exploration of Italian radical terrorism, with a protaganist who sleepwalks through the whole affair — or full of absurdities, such as "The Lincoln Lawyer" and other books (I think I've read one other, featuring the detective Hieronymous Bosch) by Michael Connelly. These books are just bad. Even Alan Furst's historical novels of WW II-era spying in Europe, which I enjoy, are formulaic and creaky at times, with stereotyped good guys and bad guys. 

It does seem like the 20th century, before TV took over, was a golden age for popular fiction, especially mysteries and detective stories. I'd put someone like Marsh, P.D. James, Dashiell Hammett or Ross Macdonald against those considered the very best contemporary literary writers (who are they?) with confidence that the earlier group would outclass the current one every time.

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Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at will@poststar.com and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at

@trafficstatic.

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