Ngaio Marsh (1899-1982) was one of the most prolific mystery writers of her time. During her 50-year career, Marsh wrote 32 novels, several plays, and many short stories. She was also a noted theatrical producer and many of her mysteries involve theaters and actors.
Edith Ngaio Marsh was born on April 23, 1899 (some sources say 1895), in Christchurch, New Zealand. She was the only child of parents who were avid readers, campers, and, most important for Marsh's future, amateur actors. The name Ngaio (pronounced "Nye-o"), by which she chose to be known, was reportedly suggested by her uncle, who was a missionary. In the native Maori language of New Zealand, "ngaio" was the name of a flowering tree, but also had many other meanings, including clever, light on the water, and a small insect.
Marsh developed an early interest in history and the theater, and also liked to paint. At 15, she entered art school at Canterbury University, and painted many New Zealand landscapes. Throughout her life, Marsh was very private about personal details, but around this time she is believed to have lost her fiance in World War I. Soon Marsh's love of the theater became the focus of her life. Inspired by a performance of Hamlet, she wrote a play called The Medallion, and by 1920, she was part of a theater company touring New Zealand. She spent several years teaching speech and working on theater productions.
First Mystery Published
In 1928, Marsh took her first trip to England, bringing the first chapters of a novel manuscript. Her mother came for a visit and became ill. While caring for her, Marsh read mystery stories and decided to convert her novel into a mystery. She worked on the manuscript until 1932, then returned to New Zealand where her mother soon died. Marsh spent the next few years writing, painting, producing plays, traveling in Europe, and caring for her elderly father.
The mystery she had begun in England, A Man Lay Dead, was published in 1934. It introduced the character who would reappear in her succeeding mystery novels and short stories, Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Marsh chose this name as a tribute to her father, who had attended Dulwich College, founded by Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn. Roderick Alleyn, like the famous Lord Peter Wimsey character created by Dorothy Sayers, is a nobleman. But Alleyn was not quite as eccentric as Wimsey; although he was an Oxford graduate, Alleyn chose to join the police force as a constable and worked his way up through the ranks. Nevertheless, he retained his gentlemanly nature and was noted for his intellectual knowledge and charm as he investigated a murder. Alleyn, like Marsh, had a passion for Shakespeare, and often quoted his plays in the midst of an investigation. Marsh went on during her career to write 31 more full-length mysteries and numerous short stories. She was considered part of the "British Golden Age" of mystery writing, along with such authors as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham.
After the publication of A Man Lay Dead, which received favorable reviews, Marsh quickly completed and published Enter a Murderer (1935), and co-authored The Nursing-Home Murder (1936). Vintage Murder (1937) was her first mystery to be set in New Zealand. Other works of the 1930s included Death in Ecstasy (1936), Artists in Crime (1938), Death in a White Tie (1938), and Overture to Death (1939).
Marsh worked at a slower pace during the 1940s because she served as a volunteer ambulance driver during World War II. However, she still had seven published mysteries during that decade: Death of a Peer (1940), Death at the Bar (1940), Death and the Dancing Footman (1941), Colour Scheme (1943), Died in the Wool (1945), Final Curtain (1947), and A Wreath for Rivera (1949).
During the 1950s and 1960s, Marsh remained extremely popular, and published many more murder mysteries: Night at the Vulcan, (1951), Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953), Scales of Justice (1955), Death of a Fool (1956), Singing in the Shrouds (1958), False Scent (1959), Hand in Glove (1962), Dead Water (1963), Killer Dolphin (1966), and Clutch of Constables (1968).
Marsh also continued to write and produce plays throughout her career as a mystery writer. One of the most unusual productions was a 1946 performance of Macbeth, set to bagpipe music. She also wrote and co-wrote plays based on several of her mysteries, including The Nursing-Home Murder, Surfeit of Lampreys, False Scent, and Murder Sails at Midnight, (based on Singing in the Shrouds).
Marsh remained active as a producer and writer into her final years. She produced Shakespeare's Henry V in 1972, and wrote and produced her last theatrical effort, Sweet Mr. Shakespeare, in 1976. During the 1970s and 1980s, she wrote several more mysteries, among them When in Rome (1970), Tied Up In Tinsel (1972), Black As He's Painted (1975), Last Ditch (1977), and Grave Mistake (1978). Her thirty-first mystery, Photo Finish was published in 1980 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Collins Crime Club.
Mysteries Had Unique Qualities
Despite Marsh's roots in New Zealand, many of her mysteries were set in the English countryside. Most also have connections to the theater, some even having the murders committed during performances. Several critics have noted that Marsh's murderers often dispatch their victims in dramatic fashion befitting a play, using such methods as impaling, suffocation in a bale of wool, and spraying with weedkiller.
Marsh's mysteries also managed to combine a sense of elegance with a dose of social conscience. Although of upper class white origin herself, she was one of the first mystery writers to become an advocate of racial tolerance, perhaps because of her experiences in New Zealand, where the native Maori were an oppressed minority. Despite the often fiendish murderers in her books, Marsh was personally opposed to the death penalty. Occasionally she would have her character, Alleyn, express her opinions on this subject.
Added strengths of Marsh's writing were an attentiveness to the details of police procedures and a strong sense of humor. She kept a large library of reference works on law, pathology, and poisons. And, as she told Australian Women's Weekly in 1949, "I always make a point of keeping the most pleasant-sounding name for the murderer. As he or she is bound to come to an unpleasant end, it seems the very least the author can do."
Although some of her mysteries have been criticized for following a set formula and being a bit outdated, Marsh was quite happy to stick to her original style. Fans continued to support her efforts by responding enthusiastically to each new mystery. An example of her popularity was the "Marsh Million" day in 1949, when a million copies of her mysteries were published on a single day in London. As she was quoted in her New York Times obituary, she considered her work to be "in the line of the original detective story, where a crime is solved calmly." And even though she wrote so many books and stories in which Alleyn appeared, Marsh apparently continued to enjoy creating each new story. Marsh never married. She modelled Alleyn's eventual wife after herself; Troy, a painter, was a very independent woman who appeared in several of the Alleyn mysteries.
Honored in Final Years
Marsh's autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, was published in 1965. She was made a dame of the British Empire in 1966. But perhaps equally important to her was an honor she received the following year, when the Ngaio Marsh Playhouse was dedicated at Canterbury University in her hometown of Christchurch, New Zealand. She produced Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as the opening performance. In 1978, Marsh was honored with the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America.
Marsh died in Christchurch, New Zealand, on February 18, 1982. Her thirty-second and final mystery, Light Thickens, was completed only a few weeks before her death. It revolves around one of her greatest theatrical passions, Shakespeare's Macbeth. The Christchurch home in which she lived from the age of ten has been established as a historic site, and is filled with her collection of antiques. On her desk lies a fountain pen filled with green ink, her long-time writing tool.
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, HarperCollins, 1987.
Contemporary Authors (New Revision Series), Vol. 58, Gale Research, 1997.
Mystery and Suspense Writers, Vol. 2, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan, Scribner's, 1998.
New York Times, February 19, 1982.
Ngaio Marsh House,http://canterbury.cyberspace.org.nz/public/histrust/ngaio.html (February 24, 1999). □