Marsh, Ngaio (1899–1982)
Marsh, Ngaio (1899–1982)
One of 20th-century English literature's foremost writers of detective fiction . Name variations: Ngaio Edith Marsh; Edith Marsh; Dame Ngaio Marsh. Pronunciation: first name is pronounced "nye-o." Born on April 23, 1899 (some sources cite 1895), in Christchurch, New Zealand; died on February 18, 1982, in Christchurch; daughter of Henry Edmund Marsh (a bank clerk) and Rose Elizabeth (Seager) Marsh; attended Canterbury University College School of Art (1915–20).
A Man Lay Dead (1934); Death in a White Tie (1938); Artists in Crime (1938); Overture to Death (1939); Death of a Peer (1940); Colour Scheme (1943); Final Curtain (1947); Opening Night (1951); Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953); Singing in the Shrouds (1958); Hand in Glove (1962); Dead Water (1963); Black Beech and Honeydew: An Autobiography (1965, rev. ed. 1981); Clutch of Constables (1968); Tied up in Tinsel (1972); Grave Mistake (1978); Photo-Finish (1980); Light Thickens (1982); The Collected Shorter Fiction of Ngaio Marsh (1995).
Ngaio Marsh is usually ranked among the "dames" of English mystery writing, along with Agatha Christie and other women authors of the elegantly written whodunit who rose to prominence in the 1930s. Marsh was a New Zealander who spent much of her adult life divided between homes in her native land and London, England. Though her 30-plus books won her a devoted readership as well as critical acclaim, Marsh's real love was the theater; for a great many years, she was a producer and director of stage dramas in New Zealand, many of them classics from the Shakespearean repertoire, and the world of actors, rehearsals, and curtain calls was one she often incorporated into her plots.
Marsh was born on April 23, 1899, in Christchurch, New Zealand (some sources cite the year as 1895). Her given name is a Maori word for a type of flowering tree in New Zealand. Her parents Henry and Rose Marsh had been actors, and instilled in their daughter a love of the theater as well as an appreciation for art and literature. By her teen years, she was a talented painter who planned on pursuing art as a career. She was sent to a convent school called St. Margaret's College for part of her education, and in 1915 enrolled in the Canterbury University College School of Art, where she studied for the next five years. During this time, Marsh wrote a play which she submitted to a well-known Shakespearean company. The director returned the manuscript to her personally, declining to stage it, but invited her to join the ensemble as an actor. She accepted.
For the next several years, Marsh appeared on the stage in Australia and New Zealand. She also wrote or co-wrote plays that made it into production. Her education in the theater led her into a second career as a producer and director, and she began to stage charity shows. Through this avenue, she made the acquaintance of a family of the British nobility who were sojourning in the Antipodes. The connection later proved a useful one, and characters based on the family would appear as the "Lampreys" in many of Marsh's later detective novels. She was still painting, however, and had begun to write travel articles for the Christchurch Press. In 1928, she decided to accept the invitation of her well-heeled friends and travel to England. Taking with her a half-finished manuscript of a detective novel, she worked on it in her spare time. Marsh stayed several years in London, working as an interior decorator and indulging in her love of theatergoing. When she went back to New Zealand, she left her completed manuscript with an agent, and subsequently was pleasantly surprised to find that it had been accepted for publication.
A Man Lay Dead (1934) marked Marsh's debut as a detective-fiction author. In it, she introduces the erudite, urbane Detective Roderick Alleyn, who would reappear in much of her work. Marsh won praise for her smart, smooth characterization of the quintessential British male: Alleyn is neither facetious nor hard-boiled like his counterparts in the detective genre, but an Oxford graduate who hobnobs with aristocrats and has risen through the ranks of the police force. His personal life also became part of Marsh's plots, and eventually he marries the painter Agatha Troy, a woman as diversely accomplished as Marsh herself. Over the next four-plus decades, Alleyn and his Shakespeare-quoting sidekick, Inspector Fox, helped unravel the mysteries surrounding the baffling and often creatively executed murders that anchor the plots of Marsh's fiction.
Marsh won praise for departing to a certain degree from the detective-fiction formula; for instance, her novels did not always open with the discovery of a body, as was standard practice in the genre. In some cases, Marsh let her readers get to know the victim quite well, and in other novels her characters fell in love, both of which previously had been taboo in crime-fiction plots. Furthermore, she sometimes did not let Alleyn in to help tie the pieces of the puzzle together until relatively late in the plot. Many stories were set in the theater, and an actual murder onstage was not an uncommon occurrence. She also became known for the unusual methods with which she dispatched her victims—in Overture to Death (1939), a pistol was rigged inside a piano so that when the pedal was pressed, it went off and killed the performer; in another novel, a politician was found dead in a bale of wool. Four of her novels were set in New Zealand, and in them she introduced Maori characters as well as cultural customs.
However, Marsh set most of her novels—such as Death in a White Tie (1938), Final Curtain (1947), Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953), Clutch of Constables (1968), and Grave Mistake (1978), among many others—on the playgrounds of the rich and idle, such as English country house parties or the French Riviera. She consistently won critical acclaim for her prose, characterizations, and insight into social mores, and scholars of the detective-fiction genre have noted that she would have been quite capable of writing a mainstream novel in which the plot did not depend upon the clever resolution of a crime to carry the reader to a denouement. She was what is known as a "fair play" mystery writer, one who gave her reader all the knowledge that Detective Alleyn or another central character had in solving the whodunit.
After returning to New Zealand in the 1930s, Marsh continued to travel back and forth between the two corners of the world for most of her adult life. She worked again as a theater producer in New Zealand from 1944 to 1952, and served as artistic director for British Commonwealth Theatre Company in the early 1950s. She directed numerous Shakespearean productions—an
even more ambitious accomplishment given that those works had not appeared on the New Zealand stage for two decades—and also worked for the Red Cross and served as an ambulance driver during World War II. In the late 1940s, she lectured at her alma mater, Canterbury University College, which in 1967 opened the Ngaio Marsh Theatre in her honor. Marsh derived much satisfaction from her theater work at the college, which usually took up about three months of the year; she spent the other nine months writing her novels. Her autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, was published in 1965. Ngaio Marsh was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1966, and died in Christchurch in 1982. By 1997, when St. Martin's Press began republishing all 32 of her novels, over 45 million copies of her work had been sold.
The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 6. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1982.
Henderson, Lesley, ed. Twentieth-Century Crime and Mystery Writers. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: St. James Press, 1991.
Kunitz, Stanley, and Howard Haycroft, eds. Twentieth-Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.
Lachman, Marvin S. "Ngaio Marsh," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 77: British Mystery Writers, 1920–1939. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1989, pp. 198–213.
Marsh, Ngaio. Black Beech and Honeydew: An Autobiography. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1965.
Rahn, B.J. Ngaio Marsh: The Woman and Her Work. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995.
Weinkauf, Mary S., and Mary Wickizer Burgess, eds. Murder Most Poetic: The Mystery Novels of Ngaio Marsh. San Bernardino, CA: Brownstone Books, 1996.
Manuscript collections are located at the Mulgar Memorial Library at Boston University and at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand.
Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan