The Queen of Crime

by Stephen Ross
First Published: Sleuthsayers, Aug 24, 2015 READ


I met Sam Neill (the movie actor) once. For a short time, in a galaxy far, far away (the 1980s), I worked as a bank clerk on campus at the University of Auckland, and Mr Neill came in one quiet afternoon to make enquiries about foreign exchanges. His brother was a lecturer at the university (his brother, Michael, would later be one of my English professors). I mention this brush with movie stardom simply because I can state that I have met and spoken to someone who not only knew, but was a good friend of, writer Ngaio Marsh.I met Sam Neill (the movie actor) once. For a short time, in a galaxy far, far away (the 1980s), I worked as a bank clerk on campus at the University of Auckland, and Mr Neill came in one quiet afternoon to make enquiries about foreign exchanges. His brother was a lecturer at the university (his brother, Michael, would later be one of my English professors). I mention this brush with movie stardom simply because I can state that I have met and spoken to someone who not only knew, but was a good friend of, writer Ngaio Marsh.

Ngaio Marsh sold four stories to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I mention this upfront, because it’s the only other connection (albeit tenuous) that I can claim to her; I too have had stories appear in the same magazine.

Ngaio Marsh’s short stories in EQMM

  • I Can’t Find My Way Out (August 1946)
  • Death on the Air (January 1948)
  • Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery (August 1973)
  • A Fool About Money (December 1974)

A couple of Dames at the Savoy (Christie and Marsh)

Edith Ngaio Marsh was born in 1895 (April 23; same birthday as Shakespeare) and died in 1982. In both instances, in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you want to talk about New Zealand and crime/mystery fiction, you start (and can pretty much end) with Ngaio Marsh. From the 1930s through to the 1980s, Ngaio Marsh wrote 32 novels (most still in print). She is considered to be one the leading writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and along with her stable mates Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers, has been described as one of the original four Queens of Crime. The actual Queen (Elizabeth 2), made Marsh a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1966, and in 1978 (along with Dame Daphne du Maurier), Dame Ngaio Marsh became a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America’s highest honour: the Grand Master Award. No other New Zealand writer of mystery fiction has yet achieved her standing. In fact, no other New Zealand writer. Period.

Ngaio Marsh’s parents met in Christchurch. Her mother, Rose, was a New Zealander and an actress, and her father, Henry, was British and a bank clerk with an interest in the theatre. They were married in 1894 and Edith, their only child, was born the following year. An uncle fluent in Maori was asked to provide an indigenous middle name (a custom at the time, apparently), and he came up with “Ngaio”, which is a Maori word for a type of tree, with the additional connotations of clever, methodical, and restless.

So, how do you pronounce Ngaio? And I have been asked. Being an authority on the New Zealand vocabulary and accent (because I be one), I can tell you it’s pronounced:

Nigh-Oh [ /ˈnaɪ.oʊ/ ]

Marsh’s childhood, from all accounts, was reasonably spiffing and splendid (we’ll skip over the fact that she was bullied at school and for a time (10-14 years) was home-schooled). She read everybody. Ah… pause for a moment to imagine a life before the Internet, before television. Imagine summer afternoons in the countryside reading Kipling, Dickens, Henry Fielding, Smollett, Shakespeare, and Conan Doyle. You can just picture her, in Edwardian attire, basking on a blanket in a soft breeze, with a flask of lemonade, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and thoroughly absorbed in Smollet’s The Adventures of Roderick Random (mark the name Roderick well).

In addition to reading, Marsh also had a taste for the theatre, like her parents, and while still in school she mounted several amateur theatrical productions. She also began writing: short stories and plays. At first, her audience was her school peers, but by her 20s, she was in print, with stories and poems appearing regularly in Christchurch’s The Sun newspaper. She also had a strong passion for painting, and she graduated in 1917 with an Arts diploma (first-class honours) from Canterbury University College (Christchurch is located in the Canterbury province of New Zealand).

By the time Marsh was in her early twenties, the three corners of her world had been set. It’s no surprise, then, that theatre and the arts would later form the backdrop to several of her novels. And although painting would figure prominently throughout her life (dare I call it a hobby), it was to the gravitational pull of words, both those written down and those spoken aloud, where her heart fell.

For the next ten years after graduation, until 1928, Marsh continued developing her talents as a writer: writing plays and working on a “New Zealand” novel. Together with a group of like-minded artists she formed “The Group” (a group, mostly women, with avant-garde leanings). And she found on-going employment with a handful of professional theatre companies. It was in this time that she “paid her dues” and learnt her theatre craft. In fact, had Marsh never written a single novel, she would still be recognized as one of the doyens of 20th Century New Zealand theatre. Indeed, my first introduction to her was in a theatre, when I was 14. I had joined an amateur repertory company (the other members were mostly adults), and I remember Marsh being spoken about with reverence on winter evenings over cups of hot tea and crumbly digestives (a type of cookie).

Marsh (in beret) with “The Group” (1936)

My first introduction to Ngaio Marsh the author had come about earlier, when I was about 6 or 7, only I hadn’t been aware of it at the time. There was a bookshelf in my parents’ living room. The upper shelves were lined with the classics of literature, and the lower shelves with a healthy selection of crime fiction (Cat among the Pigeons, Death on the Nile, etc.). One title on the bottom shelf always caught my eye: “Surfeit of Lampreys“. I was a small boy. The title may as well have been written in Klingon. Or Latin.

In April 2012, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine published my short story Pueri Alleynienses, and a friend asked me if the Latin title was a reference to Ngaio Marsh’s detective, the principal character of all 32 of her novels, Roderick Alleyn. No, it wasn’t, but then I discovered, unintentionally, that it was. My story was about two old men who, many years earlier, had attended Dulwich College in London. Pueri Alleynienses is the title of the Dulwich school song. It translates from the Latin as “Boys of Alleyn” (the founder of Dulwich College was Edward Alleyn). My interest in Dulwich had been based on the fact that Raymond Chandler had been a pupil there (1900-1905). In 1882, part of Dulwich College was annexed as a separate school, to be known simply as Alleyn’s School, and it was at this school that Ngaio Marsh’s father received an education, and from where she took a name for her character.

And a home for her character, too. London. Inspector Roderick Alleyn worked for Scotland Yard. He was British, a member of the gentry (his older brother was a baronet). He was an Oxford graduate, and had a background in the British army and the Foreign Service before he joined the Met. Almost all of Marsh’s 32 books are set in England, with just four set in New Zealand, where Alleyn is either on secondment to the New Zealand Police, or is on holiday (Colour Scheme, Died in the Wool, Vintage Murder, Photo Finish). A fifth, Surfeit of Lampreys, starts out in New Zealand, but promptly returns to London and stays there.

Why London? Because in 1928, Marsh went to live there. Why? Probably because, like most other New Zealand artists and creatives (and even more so 80 odd years ago), New Zealand is a bit empty. Even today, the population is well under five million, spread out over a land mass equivalent in size to the United Kingdom, or California, and not a lot of people in that population could give a flying truck about the local arts scene. Unless it involves Peter Jackson and lots of loud noises.

Nowadays it’s called going on The Big OE (Overseas Experience). Yes, there is actually a name for it: when young New Zealanders venture overseas to find fame and fortune, or to get a life. Nowadays, an OE could mean venturing anywhere: Spain, Norway, the US, South America; but until about 20 years ago, it meant only one thing: London. There are very few New Zealanders who work, or have worked, in the arts who haven’t done it. Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, to name two others. Even I’ve done it. I lived in Soho for a year (before decamping for the continent). The Big OE is written into the DNA of many New Zealanders.

Marsh (1935)

London’s (and Europe’s) appeal to Marsh would have been great. To quote Eddie Izzard, “It’s where the history comes from.” Marsh’s father was British, her mother a second-generation New Zealander with strong family connections to the “old” country. And through her connections in the New Zealand theatre world, Marsh landed in London on her feet running and co-opened an arts and crafts shop in Knightsbridge. She wrote a series of travel articles that were syndicated by the Associated Press, the strength of which gained her admission to the Society of Authors in 1929. And she gave up on her New Zealand novel. The “colonial novel” had by this time become a little passé, and not something an artistic, sophisticated, independent lady of London would care for.

And then one wet winter’s weekend in 1931, trapped indoors with nothing much else to do, a bored Marsh thought she would try her hand at a detective novel. She had been reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries since she had been a child, and she was au fait with the emerging detective genre (she had read Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al). The Golden Age of Mystery Fiction had begun, and Marsh probably didn’t realize it when she put pen to paper that weekend, but she was about to join it. Her first book, A Man Lay Dying was published three years later in 1934. Inspector Roderick Alleyn entered the minds of readers and found their favour, along with most critics.

Marsh was back in Christchurch when the book went to print, having returned in 1932 to nurse her ill mother. She wouldn’t return to Europe until the late 1930s, and from then on she largely made her home in New Zealand. The Big OE was over. If I was to write a movie script about Marsh, that’s where I’d end it: The publication of her first book to great reception. The end. Roll credits. The rest of her life is largely a matter of bibliography and milestone. She wrote 31 more novels featuring Inspector Alleyn (about one every 1-2 years), cementing her place in the literary pantheon. She wrote numerous plays, short stories, articles, and three works of non-fiction, including an autobiography. And she dedicated the remainder of her time to her other love: theatre.

Selected Milestones (not mentioned above):

1949    Penguin Books publishes the Marsh Million, in which one million copies of ten of her titles (i.e. 100,000 x 10) were released on the same day.
1950   Marsh produces her favourite play (Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author) at the Embassy Theatre in London. It’s interesting that this was her favourite play, given her love of Shakespeare. It’s an oddball piece of theatre (in my tainted opinion — I sat through a million amateur performances of it in the 1980s as a lighting designer). I much prefer Rod Serling’s Five Characters in Search of an Exit, if you know your Twilight Zone.
1951   An Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reader’s poll votes Marsh one of the best mystery writers currently active.
1963   Receives an honorary doctorate in literature from Canterbury University.
1967   The Ngaio Marsh Theatre opens. It is a 400-seat proscenium-arch theatre on campus at the University of Canterbury (currently closed due to earthquake damage). Opening night was a Ngaio Marsh produced production of Twelfth Night.
1967   Death at the Dolphin nominated for the Edgar Award
1969   Marsh produces A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, starring Sam Neill.
1973   Tied up in Tinsel nominated for the Edgar Award
1978   South Pacific Pictures (a NZ television company) produces four feature-length adaptations of the New Zealand-set novels, starring George Baker as Inspector Alleyn.
1990-94   The BBC produces The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, adapting nine of the novels.
2010   The Ngaio Marsh Award is established by journalist Craig Sisterson. The award is given each year to the best crime novel written by a citizen (or resident) of New Zealand.

 

Roderick Alleyn
Roderick Alleyn’s initials are RA. As a painter, Marsh would have known that the initials “RA” after an artist’s name stand for Royal Academician, i.e. an artist elected (to the distinguished title) by members of the Royal Academy of Arts. I mention this purely as an observation.

Agatha Troy 
Agatha Troy first appears in Artists in Crime (1938). She is a famous painter. She is Marsh’s version of Agatha Christie’s  Ariadne Oliver — i.e. a character through which the author can vicariously live in the story. Troy reappears in the later books and becomes Alleyn’s wife.

Ngaio Marsh’s Mystery Books:

  1. A Man Lay Dead (1934)
  2. Enter a Murderer (1935)
  3. The Nursing Home Murder (1935)
  4. Death in Ecstasy (1936)
  5. Vintage Murder (1937)
  6. Artists in Crime (1938)
  7. Death in a White Tie (1938)
  8. Overture to Death (1939)
  9. Death at the Bar (1940)
  10. Surfeit of Lampreys (1941) [US: Death of a Peer]
  11. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)
  12. Colour Scheme (1943)
  13. Died in the Wool (1945)
  14. Final Curtain (1947)
  15. Swing Brother Swing (1949) [US: A Wreath for Rivera]
  16. Opening Night (1951) [US: Night at the Vulcan]
  17. Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954) [US: The Bride of Death (abridged, 1955)]
  18. Scales of Justice (1955)
  19. Off With His Head (1957) [US: Death of a Fool]
  20. Singing in the Shrouds (1959)
  21. False Scent (1960)
  22. Hand in Glove (1962)
  23. Dead Water (1964)
  24. Death at the Dolphin (1967) [US: Killer Dolphin]
  25. Clutch of Constables (1968)
  26. When in Rome (1970)
  27. Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)
  28. Black As He’s Painted (1974)
  29. Last Ditch (1977)
  30. Grave Mistake (1978)
  31. Photo Finish (1980)
  32. Light Thickens (1982)

Marsh (1972)

Don’t ask me to name a favourite Marsh. I’ve only read two of them, and a long time ago at that. The word tardy is applicable. In researching this little post, I turned up the fact that the bafflingly titled book on my parent’s bookshelf, Surfeit of Lampreys, is considered her best book. I’ve left a memo on my desk to get a copy and read it.

Light thickens, and the crowMakes wing to th’ rooky wood.
Light Thickens was Marsh’s final novel (1982). The title is taken from a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (quoted above), and a principal element of the book concerns the theatrical taboo of “the Scottish play”. Marsh completed the book shortly before her death. The Golden Age was over. The last queen was dead.