Ngaio Marsh

(1895 – 1982)

Ngaio MarshBiographical Sketch

Dame Edith Ngaio Marsh DBE (Christchurch, New Zealand, April, 23 1895 – Christchurch, New Zealand, February 18, 1982) was a New Zealand crime writer and theatre director. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1966.

Marsh is known as one of the “Queens of Crime”, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. She is known primarily for her character Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a gentleman detective who works for the Metropolitan Police (London).

Marsh was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she also died. Her father neglected to register her birth until 1900, and there is some uncertainty about the exact date.  Marsh’s first name — Ngaio — is the Maori word for both a native flowering tree and an insect.  She moved to England in 1928, following the invitation of a family of friends who would later be incarnated as the titular Lampreys in her novel A Surfeit of Lampreys, but returned to New Zealand five years later and also spent WWII in her native country.  In 1948 she once more returned to Great Britain; for the next decades she divided her time between her adopted country (England) and her native New Zealand.

Internationally, Ngaio Marsh is best known for her 32 detective novels published between 1934 and 1982.  The protagonist of all of her novels is British CID detective Roderick Alleyn.  Several mysteries also feature Marsh’s other loves, the theatre and painting. A number are set around theatrical productions (Enter a Murderer, Vintage Murder, Overture to Death, Opening Night, Death at the Dolphin, and Light Thickens), and three others are about actors off stage (Colour Scheme, False Scent and Final Curtain). Her short story I Can Find My Way Out is also set around a theatrical production and is the earlier “Jupiter case” referred to in Opening Night.  The short story won third prize in 1946 in the inaugural short story contest of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  Alleyn marries a painter, Agatha Troy, whom he meets during an investigation (Artists in Crime), and who also features in three later novels. 

Most of the mysteries are set in England, but four are set in New Zealand, with Alleyn either on secondment to the New Zealand police (Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool) or on holiday (Vintage Murder and Photo Finish); Surfeit of Lampreys begins in New Zealand but continues in London.  Notably, Colour Scheme — and to lesser extents, also Vintage Murder and Photo Finish — include Māori people among their cast of characters, unusual for novels of the British mystery genre.

Although Marsh is best known as a mystery writer, her first and greatest passion was the stage; particularly, the plays of William Shakespeare.  Both of Marsh’s parents were theatrically gifted, though neither of them chose to pursue those inclinations as a career; but they were supportive of their daughter when the opportunity arose for her.  Having first toured New Zealand as a young actress with two touring companies — one of them founded and led by noted actor-manager Allan Wilkie, with whom and his wife she would form a lasting friendship –, she soon realized that her inclination was more towards directing than to acting.  In 1942 she produced a modern-dress Hamlet for the Canterbury University College Drama Society, the first of many Shakespearean productions with that society until 1969. In 1944, Hamlet and a production of Othello toured a theatre-starved New Zealand to rapturous acclaim. In 1949, assisted by entrepreneur Dan O’Connor, her student players toured Australia with a new version of Othello and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.  In the 1950s she was involved with the New Zealand Players, a relatively short-lived national professional touring repertory company. In 1972 she was invited by the Christchurch City Council to direct Shakespeare’s Henry V, the inaugural production for the opening of the newly constructed James Hay Theatre in Christchurch; she made the unusual choice of casting two male leads, who alternated on different nights.

Ngaio Marsh lived to see New Zealand set up with a viable professional theatre industry with realistic Arts Council support, with many of her protégés to the forefront. The 430-seat Ngaio Marsh Theatre at the University of Canterbury is named in her honour.

In the arena of detective fiction, the Ngaio Marsh Award is awarded annually for the best New Zealand mystery, crime and thriller fiction writing.

Read more about Ngaio Marsh on Wikipedia.

 

Major Awards and Honors

Order of the British Empire
  • 1948: Officer
  • 1966: Dame Commander
Detection Club
  • 1974: Induction to membership
Mystery Writers of America
  • 1978: Grand Master Award
    – for lifetime achievement as a detective novelist.
Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Short Story Contest
  • 1946: Third Prize – “I Can Find My Way Out”
University of Canterbury, New Zealand
  • 1962: Honorary doctorate
New Zealand Post
  • 1989: Ngaio Marsh 80¢ stamp
    – as part of a New Zealand authors series.

 

Bibliography

The Roderick Alleyn Series
  • A Man Lay Dead (1934)
  • Enter a Murderer (1935)
  • The Nursing Home Murder (1935)
  • Death in Ecstasy (1936)
  • Vintage Murder (1937)
  • Artists in Crime (1938)
  • Death in a White Tie (1938)
  • Overture to Death (1939)
  • Death at the Bar (1940)
  • Surfeit of Lampreys (1941)
    A/K/A: Death of a Peer
  • Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)
  • Colour Scheme (1943)
  • Died in the Wool (1945)
  • Final Curtain (1947)
  • Swing Brother Swing (1949)
    A/K/A A Wreath for Rivera
  • Opening Night (1951)
    A/K/A Night at the Vulcan
  • Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954)
    A/K/A The Bride of Death
  • Scales of Justice (1955)
  • Off With His Head (1957)
    A/K/A Death of a Fool
  • Singing in the Shrouds (1959)
  • False Scent (1960)
  • Hand in Glove (1962)
  • Dead Water (1964)
  • Death at the Dolphin (1967)
    A/K/A Killer Dolphin
  • Clutch of Constables (1968)
  • When in Rome (1970)
  • Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)
  • Black As He’s Painted (1974)
  • Last Ditch (1977)
  • Grave Mistake (1978)
  • Photo Finish (1980)
  • Light Thickens (1982)
  • Money in the Morgue (2018)
    – Begun during WWII, but left unfinished after 3 chapters; completed by Stella Duffy.
Short Stories
  • Moonshine (1936)
    – Anthologized in Yours and Mine: Stories by Young New Zealanders.
  • The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh (1989)
    A/K/A Death on the Air and Other Stories
    – Republished in the UK in 1995 under the latter name.
    – Also includes the script of the TV drama Evil Liver (see below).

    • The Figure Quoted (first published 1927)
    • Death on the Air (first published 1937)
    • I Can Find My Way Out (first published 1946)
    • Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery (first published 1974)
    • The Hand in the Sand (first published 1953)
    • The Cupid Mirror (first published 1972)
    • A Fool about Money (first published 1973)
    • Morepork (first published 1979)
Stage and TV Plays
  • Noel (1912)
  • The Moon Princess (1913)
  • Mrs ‘obson (1914)
  • So Much for Nothing (1921)
  • Little House Bound (1924)
  • Exit Sir Derek
    – Adaptation of The Nursing Home Murder by Henry Jellett (1935)
  • Slipknot (1967)
    – Anthologised under its original title, A Knotty Problem, in Bodies from the Library: Volume 3, ed. Tony Medawar (2020)
  • Evil Liver (1975)
    – Script of an episode of the series Crown Court by Granada Television Ltd.
Songs
  • Columbine and Pantaloon (1919)
  • The Hawthorn Gate (1920)
  • The Gift. First (1920)
Memoir, Letters, Articles, and Other Nonfiction
  • “Roderick Alleyn” (undated)
    – Included in The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh (Death on the Air and Other Stories)
  • “Portrait of Troy” (undated)
    – Included in The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh (Death on the Air and Other Stories)
  • The Night Train from Grey
    – Published under the pseudonym Kowhai; Sun, June 7, 1919.
  • The Novelist’s Problem
    Press, December 22, 1934.
  • Marie Tempest by Hector Bolitho (1937)
    – Review.
  • Speech of New Zealanders (1939)
  • New Zealand (1942)
    – Coauthored with R.M. Burdon.
  • A Play Toward (1946)
  • Theatre: A Note on the Status Quo
    Landfall, March 1947.
  • A National Theatre
    Landfall, March 1949; co-authored with George Swan and Arnold F Goodwin.
  • An Author’s Defence of the Hackneyed Classics
    ABC Weekly, April 2, 1949.
  • The Development of the Arts in New Zealand
    Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts, February 9, 1951.
  • Theatre in a Young Country
    Sydney Morning Herald, April 29, 1951.
  • My Poor Boy (1959)
    – Included in The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh (Death on the Air and Other Stories)
  • New Zealand: Welfare Paradise
    Holiday, November 1960.
  • The Quick Forge
    – Article within Shakespeare’s Quatercentenary; Landfall, March 1964.
    – Coauthored with James Bertram, D.F. McKenzie, and Frank Sargeson.
  • Black Beech and Honeydew (1965)
    – Revised 1981.
  • Stratford-upon-Avon
    Atlantic Monthly, February 1967.
  • Singing Land (1974)

 

A Selection of Quotes

Death on the Air and Other Stories

“Above all things — read. Read the great stylists who cannot be copied rather than the successful writers who must not be copied.”

“You may be able to write a novel, you may not. You will never know until you have worked very hard indeed and written at least part of it. You will never really know until you have written the whole of it and submitted it for publication.”

“Please don’t entertain for a moment the utterly mistaken idea that there is no drudgery in writing. There is a great deal of drudgery in even the most inspired, the most noble, the most distinguished writing. Read what the great ones have said about their jobs; how they never sit down to their work without a sigh of distress and never get up from it witout a sigh of relief. Do you imagine that your Muse is forever flamelike — breathing the inspired word, the wonderful situation, the superb solution into your attentive ear? … Believe me, my poor boy, if you wait for inspiration in our set-up, you’ll wait for ever.”

“Why do you want to become an author? I will accept only one answer. If it is because you feel you can write better than you can do anything else then go ahead and do it without frills and flourishes. Stick to your present job and write in your spare time: but do it as if it is a whole time job.”

“You must be able to write. You must have a sense of form, of pattern, of design. You must have a respect for and a mastery over words.”

As quoted in Ngaio Marsh: A Life by Margaret Lewis

“We do not wait for inspiration. We work because we’ve jolly well got to. But when all is said and done, we toil at this particular job because it’s turned out to be our particular job, and in a weird sort of way I suppose we may be said to like it.”

Find more quotes by Ngaio Marsh on Goodreads.

 

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