Monday, January 11, 2010

M is for Marsh, Dame Ngaio

Continuing the fun series started by fellow Anzac book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, this week is the turn of "M".

I was mulling over many books and authors for my "M" post (I may have to do more than one), however given that in my "A" post I said I would regularly sprinkle my contributions with a New Zealand-related post or two, it would seem churlish of me to overlook the biggest name in the history of New Zealand crime fiction, and a doyen of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, Dame Ngaio Marsh.

NB - this Crime Fiction Alphabet post is an edited and updated reproduction of a profile post I did on Dame Ngaio Marsh last year.

DAME NGAIO MARSH (1895?-1982)
Born in New Zealand between 1895-1899 (there is some dispute as to the year), the girl who would become Dame Ngaio Marsh was raised and schooled in Christchurch - the biggest city in the South Island of New Zealand. 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). You can read my blog post on her debut HERE.

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 from late last year HarperCollins UK have been running a promotion in Britain to celebrate Marsh's writing and mark the 75th anniversay of her debut, and the 50th anniversary of the 'Marsh Million' - by releasing new omnibus editions of Inspector Alleyn titles. You can see more about some of the omnibus editions here.

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 recently 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. You can see more about Drayton's biography here. A UK version of this biography was released in September last year - you can read more about it, and Marsh, in my blog post of the time - here.

For those interested, some more biographical and bibliographical information on Dame Ngaio Marsh can also be found here and here. I would also recommend an excellent article by NZ Herald Books Editor Linda Herrick, on Marsh's life and Drayton's biography, which is available to read online here.

Have you read Ngaio Marsh? What is your favourite Alleyn novel? What do you think of Alleyn as a series detective? Do the books stand up, decades later? Thoughts and comments welcome...


  1. Craig - Thank you so much for this excellent bio : ). I've always like Marsh's work, and I'm glad that you highlighted her work. One thing I always loved in her work is her sense of humor.

  2. I'm a big fan of the Kiwi girl done good. I haven't read all of her books yet, but the one I've enjoyed the most so far is Tied up in Tinsel, which isn't just a good story, but beautiful writing.

    One of the things I find sad is that the New Zealand collective consciousness seems to have forgotten about Ngaio and doesn't realise what a huge achievement it was for her to make such an international name in crime fiction. It is another case of someone being better known and more highly regarded abroad than on the home front.

    I'm doing my personal bit to try and rectify that with blogging and also researching her, so I'm delighted to see you are too!

  3. I always liked Marsh more than Christie as a teenager when I read most of them. It's a bit sad that the Marsh books are harder to come by these days - I think the fact that Christie's works are continuously adapted for TV keep getting them re-released in various formats (many have been recorded in audio format by Joan Hicks and David Suchet for example) whereas Marsh's books are more difficult to get hold of (not impossible though - a few are on audible I note so I may pick one up with my credits next month). My favourite is The Nursing Home Murder which is set against the backdrop of pre-Israel Palestine. Quite fascinating.

    Thanks for the informative post.

  4. Thanks for this contribution Craig - you really couldn't have not written about New Zealand's biggest M! And welcome back too - and Happy New Year :-)

  5. I second what Vanda says about Marsh´s achievement. I own 6-8 of her novels, all of which I have found in secondhand bookshops in Denmark, and until I found Craig´s blog, she was more or less the only NZ writer I had ever heard about.

  6. I hadn't known about her before this. Thanks for posting this!

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: M post!