As part of this blog I hope to introduce you to a wider range of Kiwi crime/mystery/thriller writers, or provide (or point you in the right direction of) a little more info on authors of which you're already aware.
For the first of this series of author intros, we'll start with the doyen of Kiwi crime writing; Dame Ngaio Marsh.
Born in New Zealand between 1895-1899 (there is some dispute as to the year), she was raised and schooled in Christchurch. Ngaio (which is a Maori name meaning 'light reflecting on water', as well as being the name of a native NZ tree) began writing at an early age, publishing in school magazines and winning prizes for poems and prose. However, at that time she also became very interested in art and theatre. She ended up studying painting after high school at the Canterbury College School of Art, before joining a touring Shakespearian theatre company. And when she later started writing detective fiction, she wove these lifelong passions for art and the theatre into many of her novels.
Internationally she is best known for her 32 crime novels featuring Detectice Roderick Alleyn, published between 1934 and 1982 (the year she died). Along with Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers she was considered one of the original "Queens of Crime" - the four 'British' women who dominated the Golden Age of detective fiction in the early part of the 20th century.
After trying and failing to write a 'New Zealand novel' while living in England between 1928 and 1932, she turned to detective fiction, penning her first Alleyn novel, A MAN LAY DEAD, while living in a London flat (although it wasn't published until 1934, two years after she'd returned to New Zealand).
From that point on, Marsh split her adult life between New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and between theatre and crime writing. Although she did weave some of her New Zealand roots into her novels (Alleyn visits New Zealand in four of them; VINTAGE MURDER (1937), COLOUR SCHEME (1943), DIED IN THE WOOL (1945) and PHOTO-FINISH (1980), and there are New Zealand characters or colonial themes or viewpoints in others), her stories were very much of the British 'cosy mystery' canon that was at its height during the 1920s-1950s. The crimes are committed by someone in a closed group of people, often in upper or middle-class settings such as country houses, theatres, or small villages. Alleyn is a very English detective.
However Marsh did imbue some of her novels with a little more exoticism than her contemporaries - along with visits to New Zealand or continental Europe, she sometimes brought in aspects of colonialism, rural farming life, Maori culture, and other unique topics - along with her loves of painting and the theatre.
In 1949, in conjunction with Penguin Books, Collins released 100,000 copies of each of ten of her novels simultaneously. One million copies (the 'Marsh Million') came onto the international market, putting our own Kiwi crime writer into a very exclusive group - it was a distinction only shared by George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Agatha Christie.
Despite this phenomenal popularity and success, I think Marsh has been somewhat overlooked, especially in New Zealand where she is more famous for her revitalisation of theatre in this country (it was in fact for her services to theatre that she received her Damehood in 1966). Despite being a big Agatha Christie fan as a teen, I must confess that when I later moved south to study at the University of Canterbury, I had no idea that the Ngaio Marsh theatre (in which I even took the stage), was in fact named after a local crime writer. It wasn't until a few years later I discovered her stories, which are still enjoyable reads today.
Many of Ngaio Marsh's books are still available, and I understand that HarperCollins UK may be running a promotion in Britain later this year - I would imagine to mark the 50th anniversary of the 'Marsh Million'.
Despite her international fame and her theatrical bent, Marsh was apparently a very private person, and closely guarded her personal life - even to the point of destroying some of her possessions and work later in life. She did write an autobiography, BLACK BEECH AND HONEYDEW (1965), although that didn't shed too much light on her life.
However last year Dr Joanne Drayton released a superb biography, NGAIO MARSH: HER LIFE IN CRIME (2008, HarperCollins), which provides a lot more information about one of New Zealand's writing giants, and is in of itself a great read: http://www.harpercollins.co.nz/fmi/xsl/nz/book_details.xsl?isbn13=97818695063539506353#
Modern-day Kiwi crime queen Vanda Symon is currently running a Ngaio Marsh Challenge at her blog: http://vandasymon.blogspot.com/2008/09/ngaio-marsh-challenge.html
I myself have read a handful of Marsh's books over the years, and am intending to read many more. ARTISTS IN CRIME is now near the top of my TBR pile (I bought this after seeing Drayton speak about her biography at the Auckland Writers Festival earlier this year).
For those interested, some more information on Dame Ngaio Marsh can be found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dame_Ngaio_Marsh or
Please share some of your Ngaio Marsh reading experiences (or real-life ones if you ever met her) in the comments section below.