Marsh, Ngaio (1895 (?) – 1982) updated 06-02-2022

Ngaio_Marsh_by_Henry_Herbert_Clifford_ca_1935,_cropNgaio Marsh, in full Dame Edith Ngaio Marsh DBE was a New Zealand crime writer and theatre director. She is known as one of the “Queens of Crime”, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. Marsh is known primarily for her character Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a gentleman detective who works for the Metropolitan Police (London). The Award for the best New Zealand mystery, crime and thriller fiction writing, that is granted annually, bears her name.

The picture enclosed: Ngaio Marsh by Henry Herbert Clifford ca 1935, is on the public domain and was uploaded from Wikipedia

Marsh was born in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her father neglected to register her birth until 1900 and there is some uncertainty about the date. Thus, she chose the 23 of April, and the year was most likely 1895. She was the only child of Rose and bank clerk Henry Marsh, described by Marsh as “have-nots”. Ngaio Marsh was educated at St Margaret’s College in Christchurch, where she was one of the first students when the school was founded. She studied painting at the Canterbury College (NZ) School of Art before joining the Allan Wilkie company as an actress in 1916 and touring New Zealand. For a short time in 1921 she joined the Rosemary Rees English Comedy Company, a touring company formed by actor-manager Rosemary Rees. In 1928, she went to London with friends (on whom she would base the Lamprey family [Surfeit of Lampreys]). Thus, from 1928 she divided her time between living in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. In London, she began writing syndicated articles that were published back in New Zealand. In addition, she and one of the friends that she came to London with decided to open Touch and Go, an handcraft shop that sold items such as decorated trays, bowls, and lampshades. Thus, from 1928 to 1932 she operated this shop in Knightsbridge, London. During this time, she wrote her first book, A Man Lay Dead. Although Marsh was not well recognized until after her trio of Artists in Crime (1938), Death in a White Tie (1938) and Overture to Death (1939).

Internationally she is best known for her 32 detective novels published between 1934 and 1982. All her novels feature British CID detective Roderick Alleyn. Several novels 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.

Most of the novels 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 includes Māori people among its cast of characters, unusual for novels of the British mystery genre. This novel is said to further subvert the genre by incorporating elements of spy fiction and providing a veiled critique of the British Empire. In 2018, HarperCollins Publishers released Money in the Morgue by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy. The book was started by Marsh during World War II but abandoned. Working with just the book’s title, first three chapters and some notes—but no idea of the plot or motive of the villain—Duffy completed the novel.

Marsh’s great passion was the theatre. In 1942 she produced a modern-dress Hamlet for the Canterbury University College Drama Society (now University of Canterbury Dramatic Society Incorporated or Dramasoc), the first of many Shakespearean productions with the 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. She 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.

Her home, now known as Ngaio Marsh House, in Cashmere, a suburb of Christchurch, on the northern slopes of the Port Hills is preserved as a museum.

Marsh was unofficially engaged to Edward Bristed, who died in action in December 1917. She never married and had no children. She enjoyed close companionships with women, including her lifelong friend Sylvia Fox, but denied being lesbian, according to biographer Joanne Drayton. She also wrote plays, essays, and an a lyrical but not very revealing autobiography, Black Beech & Honeydew (Collins) in 1965 (rev. ed. 1981). British author and publisher Margaret Lewis wrote an authorized biography, Ngaio Marsh, A Life in 1991. New Zealand art historian Joanne Drayton’s biography, Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime was published in 2008. Towards the end of her life she systematically destroyed many of her papers, letters, documents and handwritten manuscripts. In 1966 she was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her accomplishments in the arts, and in 1978 she was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. She died in Christchurch on 18 February 1982. (Source: Wikipedia among other sources)

Bibliography: A Man Lay Dead (1934); Enter a Murderer (1935); The Nursing Home Murder (1935 with Henry Jellett); 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) [Death of a Peer in the U.S.]; Death and the Dancing Footman (1942); Colour Scheme (1943); Died in the Wool (1945); Final Curtain (1947); Swing Brother Swing (1949) [A Wreath for Rivera in the U.S.]; Opening Night (1951) [Night at the Vulcan in the U.S.]; Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953) [The Bride of Death in the U.S.]; Scales of Justice (1955); Off With His Head (1956) [Death of a Fool in the U.S]; Singing in the Shrouds (1958); False Scent (1959); Hand in Glove (1962); Dead Water (1963); Death at the Dolphin (1966) [Killer Dolphin in the U.S.]; 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), and Money in the Morgue (2018) (unfinished – completed by Stella Duffy)

Marsh’s short works can be found in Collected Short Mysteries (1989) edited by Douglas G. Greene.

Further Reading:

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