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by Bamber Gascoigne

Dame Edith Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982)


Of all the "Great Ladies" of the English mystery's golden age, including Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh alone survived to publish in the 1980s. Over a fifty-year span, from 1932 to 1982, Marsh wrote thirty-two classic English detective novels, which gained international acclaim. She did not always see herself as a writer, but first planned a career as a painter.

"As is always the case, much of what was unearthed turned out to be of no relevance, much was of doubtful or self-contradictory nature and only a scanty winnowing found to be of real significance. It was as if the components of several jigsaw puzzles had been thrown down on the table and before the one required picture could be assembled the rest would have to be discarded." (from Grave Mistake, 1978)

Ngaio Marsh was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, the only child of Henry Edward and Rose Elizabeth (Seager) Marsh. Her first name, pronounced "ny-o", is a Maori word, meaning "Reflections on the water", and was chosen by her uncle. Marsh's father, an emigrant from England, was a clerk in the Bank of New Zealand. Rose Elizabeth was a talented amateur actress. Her mother's grandfather was an early colonist in New Zealand.

At the age of 15, Marsh entered St. Margaret's College, a private school run by the Church of England. During this period, she became interested in theatre and playwriting. From 1915 to 1920 she attended Canterbury University College School of Art. Edward Bristed, her childhood friend and unofficial fiancé, died in December 1917 in action at Flanders.

For a period, Marsh taught speech craft at the school of Drama and Dancing in Christchurch. After painting, acting, and producing in the theater in the 1920s, she travelled in 1928 to England, and opened, in partnership with Mrs. Tahu Rhodes, a succesfull interior decorating business in Knightsbridge. Marsh's stay lasted for four years. When her mother became fatally ill, she returned in August 1932 to New Zealand. Rose Marsh died from liver cancer in November. For the following seventeen years, Marsh took care of her elderly father. They lived in Marton Cottage at Cashmere, where he had built a house for his family. Henry Marsh died  in September 1948.  She missed him much.

Marsh's first novel, A Man Lay Dead(1934), which she wrote in London in 1931-32, introduced the detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn: a combination of Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey and a realistically depicted police official at work. Throughout the 1930s Marsh painted occasionally, wrote plays for local repertory societies in New Zealand, and published detective novels. After being diagnosed with a uterine-related cancer, she underwent in 1934 gynaecological surgery in Christchurch. It was performed by Sir Hugh Ackland and Dr. Henry Jellett, a friend of her father. Marsh called him "Papa Jellett." The Nursing Home Murder (1935) was co-written with Jellet. In addition, they adapted the novel as a play. Entitled  Exit Sir Derek it was staged in the Little Theatre of Canterbury University College. In 1937 Marsh went to England. Before going back to her home country, she spent six months travelling about Europe.

The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included Surfeit of Lampreys (1940) among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. "Her writing is as good as any to be found in crime fiction. Let me end with one sentence from Surfeit of Lampreys that shows it. Roberta is arriving by boat in London. She looks out at the other ships at anchor in the early morning light. 'Stewards,' she says, 'pallid in their undervests, leant out of portholes to stare.' There is an artist in words." (Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, by H.R.F. Keating, 1987, p. 28) In the center of the story is the Lamprey family, English aristocrats, seen through the eyes of a New Zealand girl. Marsh mixed in occultism with Shakespearean details – Lord Wutherwood's eye is put out as in King Lear, where Shakespeare had the Duke of Gloucester tortured and blinded on stage.

During World War II Marsh served in a New Zealand Red Cross Transport Unit, driving repatriated soldiers in a hospital bus. She also worked with the drama department of Canterbury University and settled into a yearly routine that allowed her to spend about nine months writing a book and three months to mount a production of Shakespeare by students. From 1944 to 1952 she was producer for D.D. O'Connor Theatre Management. Upon returning to England in 1949 she founded the British Commonwealth Theatre Company. One of her major directorial assignments include Pirandello's play Six Characters in Search of an Author, which she first saw in 1932 at the Westminster Theatre. "If you long above everything to be a director, this is the play that nags and clamours to be done," she later said. (Black Beech and Honeydew: An Autobiography by Ngaio Marsh, 1965, p. 257) Working in two countries she would spend the rest of her time between England and New Zealand, writing mysteries during the sea voyages, and in theatrical activities.

"She thought that the English landscape, more perhaps than any other, is dyed in the heraldic colours of its own history. It is there, she thought, and until it disintegrates, earth, rock, trees, grass, turf by turf, leaf by leaf and blade by blade, it will remain imperturbably itself. To it, she thought, the reed really is as the oak and she found the notion reassuring." (from Grave Mistake)

After the death of his father in 1948, Marsh devoted about nine months of the year to writing and three months to theater. At Marton Cottage, she had a large personal research library. Marsh liked to study thoroughly the topics with which she dealt. Curiously, she disliked writing, according to her cousin and chief inheritor John Dacres-Manning, but writing also provided her money for the theater work. Her dedication in producing Shakespearean plays was recognized by an award from the Order of the British Empire in 1949, and in 1966 she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her services to literature and theater in New Zealand. In 1967 she produced Twelfth Night to open the new Ngaio Marsh Theatre in Christchurch. Her last full-scale production, Shakespeare's Henry V, was produced in 1972. Marsh was named in 1978 a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, along with Dame Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy B. Hughes. Her autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, came out in 1966 (revised in 1981). In 1981 Marsh wrote her own funeral intructions.

Marsh died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Christchurch, N.Z., on February 18, 1982. She was buried in the churchyard of Holy Innocents at Mount Peel Station. Her final novel, Light Thickens (1982), which blended theatre and crime, came out posthumously. In the prologue to Death of a Peer (1940), Marsh's Mount Peel homestead was memorialized as "Deepacres."

Marsh's best-known character is the Shakespeare-quoting Inspector Roderick Alleyn. The name was created as a compliment to her father, who had attended a public school founded by the Elizabethan tragedian Edward Alleyn (1566-1626). In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Alleyn has an encyclopedic mind. He is assisted by Inspector Fox, who first appears in Enter a Murderer (1935). Other central figures from the earlier books include the journalist Nigel Bathgate, a Watson character from A Man Lay Dead to Overture to Death (1939). Nigel was eventually dropped from the stories in the 1940s; Fox grows  gradually more prominent and takes Nigel's place as a comic character. Later Alleyn marries Agatha Troy, an absent-minded, thin, shy and funny painter, whose character was not far from Marsh's own in the 1930s. Troy is a sympathetic listener and her sharp eye is a great help to Alleyn. Marsh once revealed that both her agent and publisher were opposed to her introducing Troy to the series. Like Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey, Alleyn has a noble background, but instead of becoming a diplomat he joined the police force after returning from World War I. Marsh once said that "Alleyn is the sort of man I like." (Ngaio Marsh: a Companion to the Mystery Fiction by Bruce Harding, 2019, p. 24)

Four of Marsh's Alleyn stories were set in the theatre, Enter a Murderer, Opening Night (1951), Vintage Murder (1937), and Killer Dolphin (1966). Events in Overture to Death took place in a small village, Winston St. Giles, where Alleyn returned occasionally in later books. In some stories Alleyn solves murders outside England – in Australia and New Zealand (Vintage Murder, Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool), France (Spinsters in Jeopardy), or in Italy (When in Rome) – Alleyn spoke French and Italian. During World War II Alleyn chased spies, but after the war he continued in the same style as in the 1930s. A modern psychopath appeared in Singing in the Shrouds (1959). Typical of Marsh's mysteries is vivid characterization and dialogue. Julian Symons has praised in his book Bloody Murder (1985) Marsh's capacity for amused observation of the undercurrents beneath ordinary social intercourse, as in the novel Opening Night. Marsh also wrote plays, a television play Evil Liver (Crown Court series, 1975), and a book about New Zealand. In 1978 a New Zealand television company released adaptations of four of her novels as the "Ngaio Marsh Theatre."

Although her novels had English protagonists, relied on British class structure and social environment, she thought of herself as a New Zealander. Marsh's long association with the aristocratic Rhodes family colored her reticent personality, which is portrayed in the novel Blue Blood by Stevan Eldred-Grigg. "The more deeply and honestly [the crime writer] examines  his characters," Marsh confessed, "the more disquieting becomes the skulduggery that one is obliged to practise in respect to the guilty party." (Deadlier Than the Male: An Investigation Into Feminine Crime Writing by Jessica Mann, 1981, p. 225) The novels which Marsh set in her home country, Colour Scheme (1943), Vintage Murder, and Died in the Wool (1944), show a sympathy for the Maoris, and a love of the landscape. Like Christie, she mostly avoided making social or political comments on the world she observed in her mystery novels. Nurse Banks in The Nursing Home Murder is a caricature of a Communist and one of the suspects, but Marsh is more interested in the use of hyoscine as a poison than ridiculing her. King Hamlet in Shakespeare's play is murdered by liquid henbane, which contains hyoscine.  

As her one of her friends, Jack Henderson recalled, Marsh was "thin, mannish in appearance, flat-chested, rather gawky . . . dressed usually in beautifully cut slacks (less common then than now), large feet with shoes like canal boats, a deep voice – yet intensely feminine withal." (in Lesbian Studies in Aotearoa/New Zealand by Alison J. Laurie, 2001, p. 51) During her stays in London, she wore expensive clothes to suit her 5-foot-10-inch frame, and drove a Jaguar sports car. Her second Jaguar was a well known vehicle on The South Island of New Zealand.

Unlike her shy heroine, Agatha Troy, Marsh never married, but she also denied being lesbian. She had both lesbian and gay characters in her novels. They were not portrayed in exceptionally positive ways. Lesbian love is criminalized in Hand in Glove (1962) "after being ridiculed as the cross-class passion of an ageing spinster in adopting a worthless young woman." (From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction by Susan Rowlands, 2001, p. 163) Marsh's lifelong friend was Sylvia Fox, with whom she made several trips. In her autobiography she refers to her female companions only as secretaries/traveling companions, and tells that she fell in love at the age of 58 with an Russian expatriate, Vladimir Muling, who was a married man. Marsh maintained a friendship with both members of the couple. Marsh's fiction releal almost nothing of her inner life, and the same can be said of her autobiography. The American mystery writer Dorothy B. Hughes stated in her review, that "you know less of Miss Marsh from her autobiography than you have known from reading her fiction". (Ngaio Marsh: a Companion to the Mystery Fiction by Bruce Harding, 2019, p. 37)

For further reading: Bloody Murder by Julian Symons (1972); Watteau's Shepherds: The Detective Novel  in Britain, 1914-1940 by LeRoy Panek (1979); 'Ngaio Marsh,' in Deadlier Than the Male: An Investigation Into Feminine Crime Writing by Jessica Mann (1981); Ngaio Marsh: A Life by M. Lewis (1991); Ngaio Marsh by K.S. McDorman (1991); Ngaio Marsh: The Woman and Her Work, ed. by B.J. Rahn (1995); Return to Black Beech, ed. by Carolyn Lidgard and Carole Acheson (1996); Blue Blood by Stevan Eldred-Grigg (1997); Ngaio Marsh: A Life by Margaret Lewis (1998); From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction by Susan Rowlands (2001); Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime by Joanne Drayton (2008); Ngaio Marsh: a Companion to the Mystery Fiction by Bruce Harding (2019) 

Selected writings:

  • A Man Lay Dead, 1934
    - TV movie, in Alleyn Mysteries 1993, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Sarah Pia Anderson, teleplay Barbara Machin , with Patrick Malahide (as Chief Inspector Alleyn), Belinda Lang, William Simons, Martin Carroll
  • Enter a Murderer, 1935
  • The Nursing Home Murder, 1935 (with Dr. Henry Jellett; two-act play: Exit Sir Derek, with H. Jellett)
    - TV movie, in Alleyn Mysteries 1993, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Silvio Narizzano, teleplay Kevin Laffan, with Patrick Malahide (as Chief Inspector Alleyn), Belinda Lang, William Simons
  • Death in Ecstasy, 1936
    - TV movie, in Detective, 1964, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir, Roger Jenkins, with Geoffrey Keen (as Det. Chief Insp. Roderick Alleyn), Arnold Bell
  • Vintage Murder, 1937
    - TV movie 1977, dir. Brian McDuffie, teleplay Julian Dickon, with George Baker (as Chief Det. Insp. Alleyn), Hazel Cole, Terry Cooper, S. Curly DelMonte, Bill Johnson
  • Artists in Crime, 1938
    - TV movie, in Detective, 1968, dir, Roger Jenkins, with Michael Allinson (as Det. Chief Insp. Roderick Alleyn), Dorothy Black and Simon Brent; TV movie, in Alleyn Mysteries 1990, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Silvio Narizzano, teleplay R.T. Bowen, with Patrick Malahide (as Chief Inspector Alleyn), William Simons, David Sibley
  • Death in a White Tie, 1938
    - TV movie, in Alleyn Mysteries 1993, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. John Woods, teleplay John Woods, with Patrick Malahide (as Chief Inspector Alleyn), Belinda Lang, William Simons, Harold Innocent
  • Overture to Death, 1939
  • Death at the Bar, 1940
    - TV movie, in Alleyn Mysteries 1993, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Michael Winterbottom, teleplay Alfred Shaughnessy , with Patrick Malahide (as Chief Inspector Alleyn), William Simons, Alan Gilchrist
  • Death of a Peer, 1940 (UK title: A Surfeit of Lampreys, 1941)
  • Death and the Dancing Footman, 1941
  • New Zealand, 1942 (with R.M. Burdon; with twelve plates in colour and twenty-seven illustrations in black and white)
  • Colour Scheme, 1943
    - TV movie 1977, dir. Peter Sharp, with George Baker (as Chief Det. Insp. Alleyn), Alexander Hay, Eddie Hegan, Vic Hunter
  • Died in the Wool, 1945
  • A Play Toward: A Note on Play Production, 1946
  • Final Curtain, 1947
    - TV movie, in Alleyn Mysteries 1994, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Martyn Friend, teleplay Hugh Leonard, with Patrick Malahide (as Chief Inspector Alleyn), Belinda Lang, William Simons
  • Swing, Brother, Swing, 1949 ( U.S. title: A Wreath for Rivera, 1949)
  • Opening Night, 1951 ( U.S. title: Night at the Vulcan, 1951)
    - TV movie 1977, dir. Brian McDuffie, teleplay Dean Parker, with George Baker (as Chief Det. Insp. Alleyn), Les Cleveland, Jane Dyver, John Frawley, Sheila Hammond
  • Spinsters in Jeopardy, 1953 (US title: The Bride of Death, 1955)
  • Scales of Justice, 1955
    - Odottamaton onkimies (suom. Inkeri Hämäläinen, 1957)
    - TV movie, in Alleyn Mysteries 1994, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Jim Goddard, teleplay Cyril Williams, with Patrick Malahide (as Chief Inspector Alleyn), William Simons, Christopher Northey, Denis Lill
  • Death of a Fool, 1956 (UK title: Off With His Head, 1957)
  • Singing in the Shrouds, 1958
    - Serenadi ruumille (suom. Pentti Kankaala, 1960)
  • False Scent, 1959
    - Pettävä tuoksu (suom. Pauli A. Kopperi, 1961)
  • Perspectives, the New Zealander and the Visual Arts, 1960
  • Play Production, 1960
  • Three-Act Special; 3 Complete Mystery Novels, 1960 (A Wreath for Rivera; Spinsters in Jeopardy; Night at the Vulcan)
  • False Scent, 1961 (play, with Eileen Mackay)
  • Hand in Glove, 1962
    - Hansikoitu käsi (suom. Eija Palsbo, 1963)
    - TV movie, in Alleyn Mysteries 1994, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Martyn Friend, teleplay Ken Jones, with Patrick Malahide (as Chief Inspector Alleyn), Belinda Lang, William Simons, Ewen Bremner
  • The Christmas Tree, 1962 (play)
  • A Unicorn for Christmas, 1962 (play, music by David Farquhar)
  • Dead Water, 1963
    - TV movie, in Alleyn Mysteries 1994, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. John Woods, teleplay T.R. Bowen, with Patrick Malahide (as Chief Inspector Alleyn), Belinda Lang, William Simons, Ewen Bremner
  • Murder Sails at Midnight, 1963 (play)
  • Another Three-Act Special; 3 Complete Mystery Novels, 1963  (False Scent; Scales of Justice; Singing in the Shrouds)
  • New Zealand, 1964 (with an introd. by Keith Holyoake)
  • Black Beech and Honeydew: An Autobiography, 1965 (revised 1981)
  • Killer Dolphin, 1966 (UK title: Death at the Dolphin, 1967)
  • Slipknot, 1967 (television script)
  • Clutch of Constables, 1968
    - Murharisteily (suom. Risto Säämänen)
  • When in Rome, 1970
  • Tied Up in Tinsel, 1972
  • Black As He's Painted, 1973
    - Mustaa miestä ken pelkäisi (suom. 1978)
  • Singing Land, 1974
  • Evil Liver, 1975 (television play)
    - TV movie, in Crown Court, 1975, dir.
    Carol Wilks, with Spencer Banks, Joseph Berry and Richard Colson
  • Last Ditch, 1977
    - Viimeinen este (suom. Virpi Luukkonen, Teija Rinne, 1981)
  • Grave Mistake, 1978
  • Photo Finish, 1980
  • Light Thickens, 1982
    - Esirippu nousee (suom. Paula Herranen, 1989)
  • Five Complete Novels, 1983
  • Death on the Air and Other Stories, 1995
  • Collected Short Mysteries, 2016 (edited and with an introduction by Douglas G. Greene)  
  • Money in the Morgue, 2018 (with Stella Duffy)
  • Ngaio Marsh's Hamlet: the 1943 Production script, 2019 (edited with an introduction by Polly Hoskins)

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