BORN: 1899, Christchurch, New Zealand
DIED: 1982, Christchurch, New Zealand
NATIONALITY: British, New Zealander
A Man Lay Dead (1934)
Overture to Death (1939)
Opening Night (1951)
Scales of Justice (1955)
Light Thickens (1982)
During what is usually referred to as the Golden Age of the detective story, Ngaio Marsh was one of a small group of British mystery writers who set standards of the detective novel that broadened the audience for the genre. In a career that spanned almost half a century, her popularity grew steadily, and her works became as sought after in the United States as they were in England and her native New Zealand.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Developing Early Passions for Theater Ngaio Marsh was born in Christchurch on April 23, 1899, to Henry Edmund and Rose Elizabeth Seager Marsh. She first studied painting, entering art school when she was fifteen, but her great love was always the theater. Her parents had been amateur actors, and she considered the appearances of Allan Wilkie's Shakespearean troupe in Christchurch “one of the great events of [her] student days.”
Acting Career, International Travel, and a Move to London Marsh had already begun to write and submitted a Regency play, The Medallion, to Wilkie. Though he rejected the play, he returned it in person and invited her to join his company. She toured with Wilkie for two years, meanwhile writing verse, articles, and short
stories for the Christchurch Sun. Upon her return to Christchurch, Marsh resumed painting for a brief period before leaving once again to tour with a local acting company formed by Rosemary Rees. When that company failed, she returned home and was active as actress, producer, and director in a group staging charity shows. Here, she became friendly with a British family of the peerage and accepted an invitation to visit them when they returned to England. She turned them into fictional characters in several of her books, calling them the “Lampreys.” She created, as her series detective, Roderick Alleyn, named after Edward Alleyn, the great Elizabethan tragedian and founder of Dulwich College, the school her father had attended before immigrating to New Zealand. Marsh lived in England from 1928 to 1933, doing interior decorating and operating a gift shop. She frequented the London theater at every opportunity.
Early Mystery Inclinations Mysteries had always been read in the Marsh household in New Zealand. In her 1965 autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, Marsh mentions reading such authors as Baroness Orczy, Guy Boothby, and William J. Locke, and recalls her rainy-day find of Strand magazines and discovering Sherlock Holmes. In 1931, on another rainy occasion, she began writing her first mystery novel. This first book, A Man Lay Dead, was not published until 1934, by which time she had returned to New Zealand because her mother was ill.
Illness Following her mother's death after what Marsh described as “an illness as cruelly and as excruciatingly protracted as if it had been designed by Torquemada,” she remained in New Zealand to care for her father. She also wrote and painted. But she became very ill herself, and “a long-standing disability” landed her in the hospital for three months for a series of operations. Just as she used painting and the theater in her books, she made use of this experience and collaborated with her physician, Dr. Henry Jellett, on The Nursing Home Murder (1935).
Work with the Red Cross in World War II Marsh returned to England in 1937, did some touring of Europe, and then returned to New Zealand in 1938—where she stayed during World War II, driving a Red Cross ambulance. World War II took its place in history as the most costly of all human conflicts; in it 70 million people, mostly civilians, lost their lives and the overall financial cost of the war is estimated to be, based on 1944 standards, $1 trillion. Marsh used her experiences serving with the Red Cross to write two wartime mysteries—Colour Scheme (1943) and Died in the Wool (1945). She also became increasingly serious about her theater work, producing and directing productions at Canterbury College where she reintroduced Shakespearean productions to New Zealand after a twenty-year absence. After World War II she returned to England to work with the British Commonwealth Theatre Company, a group she eventually brought on tour to Australia and New Zealand.
Earning Distinction as a Writer of Crime Shorts Marsh's first published short story, “I Can Find My Way Out,” appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in August of 1946. She had entered the story in the magazine's first short-story contest, which attracted a prestigious list of entrants. Her entry led to correspondence with its editor, Frederic Dannay, during the course of which she wrote, “I know of no Australasian writer of crime shorts of any distinction.” In announcing she had won third prize in the contest, and introducing her story with a brief history of mystery fiction in Australia and New Zealand, Dannay pointed out that this was no longer true.
Life as Dame Ngaio Marsh In 1966 Marsh was appointed a dame of the British Empire, largely as a result of her work in the theater. For the rest of her life, Dame Ngaio Marsh divided her time between the theater and mystery writing. She also split her time between England and New Zealand, spending the last years before her death on February 18, 1982, in her native city. In Black Beech and Honeydew, Marsh has stated that in New Zealand she was seldom interviewed by the media regarding her mystery writing but more often about her work in the theater. Therefore, she was astonished to find a great deal of interest in her mysteries among serious readers in Great Britain, writing that “it was pleasant to find detective fiction being discussed as a tolerable form of reading by people whose opinion one valued.”
Works in Literary Context
Influences of Theater and Art Marsh's knowledge of the theater, London's society and art worlds, and the rugged terrain of New Zealand informed her thirty-two novels and a handful of short stories. She classified herself with the mystery writers who create believable characters and use novelistic values, rather than those whose main interest is the puzzle. Among the writers who influenced Marsh are Baroness Orczy, Guy Boothby, William J. Locke, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Final Curtain presents Marsh's love of the theater. Killer Dolphin (1966) and Light Thickens (1982), among others, show her love for and talent with theater as a writer with a drama background, and show her typical thinking in theatrical terms.
In several Marsh novels painting is equally important. Artists in Crime (1938) and Final Curtain (1947) both feature a painter named Agatha Troy who plays a part in each story. These and other novels contain many descriptions in which color is used vividly, suggesting a painter's eye.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Marsh's famous contemporaries include:
Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956): German playwright, stage director, and poet, he is credited, among many things, with creating the idea of epic theater.
Frederic Dannay (1905–1982): American writer, editor, and anthologist who—along with his cousin Manfred Bennington Lee—created mystery fiction under the name Ellery Queen.
Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961): Famous expatriate writer, his name is synonymous with the Great American Novel.
Frank Sargeson (1903–1982): Noted New Zealand short story writer.
Joseph Stalin (1878–1953): General secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he was subsequently the de facto dictator responsible for what is today known as Stalinism.
Using and Expanding Mystery Genre Conventions While working within the conventions of the classic detective puzzle, Marsh adapted them to her own interests and style. Though her work inevitably bore some resemblances to Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham, who had preceded her, it was sufficiently original that discerning readers found the typical Marsh experience to be unique.
For example, Marsh brings her clever variations on the theme of suspect likelihood: It is seldom possible to tell in one of her mysteries whether the murderer will be the most obvious suspect or the least likely—or someone in between. In her early works, the traditional reenactment of the crime came to be expected, as Alleyn used it to discover the murderer. Later, she had Alleyn use more conventional, though never ordinary or dull, means of detection to either trap or uncover the guilty party.
Lessons from Theater Prove Useful in Plot Designs As a playwright Marsh was aware of the dangers of anticlimax (of disappointment rather than satisfaction following the peak of excitement), and her summaries of Alleyn's reasoning tended to be shorter than the explanations of other mystery writers. Motive usually would prove not to be critical to Marsh's solution, since most of her suspects had equally good reasons; often they were being blackmailed. Despite her stated interest in character portrayal, she was also interested in opportunity, the “how” and “when” of the murder, rather than the “why.” Physical clues, rather than verbal, are more likely to be the key to the solution in her books.
Breaking Tradition Yields Police Procedural Subgenre Another long-standing tradition with which Marsh gradually broke was that of the amateur detective. Even when the policeman, like Alleyn, was a professional, he often relied on a friend who had no official standing. With Marsh it was the flighty journalist Nigel Bathgate, who appeared in eight of the early books, providing comic relief and occasionally requiring Alleyn to rescue him. Alleyn was never a “lone wolf” and cannot be considered without the Scotland Yarders who appear in most Marsh books, those he refers to as “the usual people,” when he encounters a murder and calls for assistance. Through Alleyn and his compatriots, Marsh provided an important transition to the works of Maurice Procter, John Creasey, Ed McBain, Elizabeth Linington, and others who would make the police procedural the most important new subgenre of the mystery in the 1950s.
Works in Critical Context
Marsh's works have received a wide range of criticism. Her early works, for example, were criticized for the number and length of the interviews conducted by the police within each story. With the passing years, however, Marsh shortened the question-and-answer sessions. Later, she even shunned that device as she found means to add more action to the middle portions of her books.
Nevertheless, representative of Marsh's complete body of work and the subsequent criticism are such long-standing works as Overture to Death (1939).
Overture to Death The book is set in the Dorset countryside, and the first quarter of the book has to do with village rivalries and jealousies that have arisen during preparations for an amateur theatrical performance to raise funds for the local parish house. Though frequently referred to as Marsh's best book, Overture to Death did not escape the critical wrath of the famous Edmund Wilson in his equally famous essay, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Wilson read the book because critic Bernard DeVoto had referred to Marsh's “excellent prose.” Wilson's judgment: “It would be impossible I should think, for anyone with the faintest feeling for words, to describe the unappetizing sawdust which Miss Marsh has poured into her pages as ‘excellent prose’ or as prose at all except in the sense that distinguishes prose from verse.”
Wilson's judgment, however, was decidedly a minority opinion. Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor praised its excellent detection and depiction of life in a small village. Robert E. Briney called it “a superior example of the literate whodunit.” Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen included it on their definitive list of best mysteries.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Readers have long enjoyed works in which they are called upon to figure out the true murderer from among a group of suspects, thanks to clues carefully placed by the author along the way. Below are some other examples of murder mysteries similar to those Marsh created:
The Mousetrap (1952), a play by Agatha Christie. This murder mystery is the longest-running play in theatrical history by the best-selling mystery writer of all time.
A Is for Alibi (1982), a novel by Sue Grafton. The first of the Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries, this whodunit follows in the footsteps of Dashiell Hammett's hardboiled detective Sam Spade.
The Club Dumas (1993), a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. In this detective mystery, the internationally best-selling author features Lucas Corso, a man hired by wealthy merchants to find two copies of a rare and dangerous antique book.
Rules of Prey (1989), a novel by John Sandford. This first in a series introduces readers to Lucas Davenport, an unconventional detective called in to solve a bewildering string of serial murders in Minneapolis.
Responses to Literature
- Read any of Marsh's novels. How does she depict her male protagonists and the other men in the novel? What are the female views of the males in the book? What are the male views of females in the book? Given the gender treatments, which gender would you say would be more likely to read the book? Why?
- How does Marsh incorporate her love of theater into her novels? Provide examples from one of her works, such as Final Curtain or Light Thickens.
- Marsh was a native New Zealander. How does she depict New Zealand in her works? Does the setting contribute to the story? Does the use of New Zealand as a setting contribute to any of Marsh's themes? How much more does a reader know about New Zealand after reading a Marsh work?
- Marsh's novels, like many murder mysteries, are primarily concerned with who committed the crime and how they accomplished the task. One popular exercise among mystery writers is the “locked-door” mystery, in which a person is somehow killed while alone inside a locked room. Try to think up a scenario in which a “locked-door” setting could be accomplished. Write your scenario as a short mystery story.
Barzun, Jacques and Wendell Hertig Taylor. Preface to A Wreath for Rivera in A Book of Prefaces to Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction 1900–1950. New York: Garland, 1976, pp. 83–84.
Boucher, Anthony. Introduction to The Bride of Death. New York: Mercury, 1955.
Marsh, Ngaio. Black Beech and Honeydew. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965.
Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder. New York: Viking, 1985.
Ball, John. “A Visit with Dame Ngaio Marsh.” Mystery 3 (July 1981): 23–25.
Bargainnier, Earl F. “Ngaio Marsh's ‘Theatrical’ Murders.” Armchair Detective 10 (April 1977): 175–81.
___. “Roderick Alleyn: Ngaio Marsh's Oxonian Superintendent.” Armchair Detective 11 (January 1978): 63–71.
Callendar, Newgate. Review of When in Rome. New York Times Book Review, March 7, 1971.
Dame Ngaio Marsh's Home. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://www.ngaio-marsh.org.nz/.
New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Ngaio Marsh. Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://canterbury.cyberplace.org.nz/public/histrust/ngaio.html.
TW Books. Ngaio Marsh (1895–1982). Retrieved March 31, 2008, from http://www.twbooks.co.uk/authors/nmarsh.html.