Book review: ‘Money in the Morgue’ by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

When the story opens, Detective Chief-Inspector Alleyn, of the Criminal Investigative Department (CID) of Scotland Yard, is in New Zealand on a secret mission. It is during the Second World War, and though it is unclear at first, information about the Allies is somehow being passed to the Germans. The specific location is strange since the setting is a hospital in “New Zealand’s hinterlands.” It is, however, near the ocean, with appropriate geography for observation and radio contact.

But the mission is abruptly interrupted when a substantial sum of money, most of it belonging to the government, is stolen from a locked safe, a safe that supposedly has only one set of keys. Keys that are kept on the person of the Matron, administrator of the hospital. The hospital has become very busy of late, with wounded soldiers making up much of the clientele. Reached only by a rickety bridge across a considerable river, the hospital is indeed in the hinterlands. This is especially true when a sudden storm floods the river and washes out the bridge. So, there are soldiers in various states of wellness, an inspector who wishes to be anonymous in his present role, the somewhat obnoxious government payroll driver, and the Matron. But that’s not all who are marooned at the hospital. An elderly patient is dying, and his grandson has been called in, as has the vicar. There are also several VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment), though they play little part in the mystery. So many potential suspects and so little time to solve the crime, since the espionage case is supposed to reach a head at sunrise. Normally the local police would be dealing with the theft, but with the bridge out and people upset, the inspector must reveal himself.

Who knows — maybe the theft and espionage are somehow tied together? His first act is to group as many of the potential suspects together in a small office, so they are nearby for individual interviews. And the social pressure exerted by a group of people in close quarters might assist as well. Individual interviews didn’t reveal a great deal, at least to the reader. As we learn later, they do offer clues to Detective Alleyn. Little by little, we learn that the geography of the area with hidden caves and passageways in the mountains, plays a critical role. As does the morgue, thus the title.

But the surprise comes with the people who are involved. Unlikely stories begin to surface as the long night of interviews progresses; they tend to surface in bits and pieces from the various suspects. Alleyn, a seasoned investigator, can discern the details necessary to solve both the crime and the military mystery with the same clues that have been intimated to the reader. One example of Alleyn’s insight into people comes when he is interviewing a suspect: “Alleyn thought it was no doubt better that he said nothing, no young man, angry at the world, found solace in the advice of his elders.”

“Money in the Morgue” is written in the tradition of Agatha Christie. The solutions are revealed in the final scenes by the critical analysis of the detective oracle.

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