Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Have you read Ngaio Marsh?

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:

Modern-day Kiwi crime queen Vanda Symon is currently running a Ngaio Marsh Challenge at her blog:

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: or

Please share some of your Ngaio Marsh reading experiences (or real-life ones if you ever met her) in the comments section below.


  1. Craig, just wanted to say I'm enjoying the blog so far. Looking forward to your McIlvanney review as I've got that on the list of possible purchases.

  2. I'm having fun working my way through all of Ngaio's books, and I really enjoyed Jo Drayton's biography, and the talk at AWF.

    It's one of those New Zealand being a small town things that everyone seems only a couple of steps removed from Ngaio. My boys' school principal used to deliver milk to her house when he was a boy! (He thought it was spooky)

    I think it's a shame NZers seem to have forgotten about Ngaio, especially as she was so popular. We'll just have to keep jogging everyone's memory.

  3. Hello, just discovered your blog. I read all of Ngaio Marsh's Alleyn books years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed them. Thanks for this great post about her.
    Have you seen our Friend Feed discussion group? I can set up your blog to post into it if you'd like to join.

  4. Greetings,

    Just discovered your place through "Detectives Beyond Borders," which I follow on my blog.

    I've read a number of Marsh's novels. In fact, after looking at your list, I fear she's the only NZ mystery author I have read. I shall have to do something about that. My preference is for police procedurals, although I do read the other types.

    I belong to several mystery/detective book discussion groups, and we're always looking for recommendations, especially those from outside the US and UK.

    Any recommendations?

    I have seen several of the dramatizations of her works, with Patrick Malahide as Insptr. Alleyn. He comes across a bit mild to me, but it's been awhile since I've read the novels, so maybe he's perfect in the role as she describes him. On the other hand, I've only seen a few of them, primarily the early ones, so perhaps he changes.

    I think Belinda Lang, though, is perfect as Troy.

    Nice place you have here.

  5. Have read and re-read all of NM's books and she is one of my favourite crime writers. Was very disappointed in the TV versuib abd gate ti disagree with Fred, but thought Belinda Lang far to posh and twee for Troy. My favourite of her earlier ones was Death in a White Tie and of her later books, A Clutch of Constables. I just adore her writing and adore her lovely detective!

  6. Chuckle...

    That's what makes for horse races. Let's agree to disagree and enjoy the stories.

  7. Bastian from Jakarta , IndonesiaDecember 20, 2009 at 7:00 PM

    Yes Craig, i have read them all, and my favorite ever is Death at the Bar. I'm lloking forward to re-read all of them again in 2010-2011.

  8. I'm late to the party, I know, but better late than...well, you know. I've just found your blog through a link from the rap sheet, Craig. And by the way, congrats on your first year of blogging success - many more. Thought I'd share my own ngaio marsh blog post. Though I'm not sure it you can link from a comment or not. Anyway here are the coordinates:

  9. I was just searching through Google, for Ngaio Marsh, as I used to write to a Ngaio Marsh in New Zealand through the early 60's, as we were penpals when I lived in Singapore, as a young girl 12-14 years old.
    It seems too much of a coincidence, was it her real name or a nom de plume?
    It's extraordinary that a woman would take time to write, or maybe she had a younger relative that had her name. I would be curious to find out more.

  10. I've read all of Ngaio Marsh's novels over the years with great enjoyment. Maybe I'd nominate Swing Brother swing as one of the best. Surfeit of Lampreys I loved when young, but not so much when I reread as an adult. The dramatisations I bought on DVD as they hadn't made it to television in Australia - nor did the Campion series, and both could have been cast and done better. Black Beech and Honeydew is probably the most disappointing / boring autobiography ever. (I do enjoy reading the lives of my favourite writers.) There is a better one, but thanks to your mention of the Joanne Drayton bio I have just been to the Book Depository website and ordered it.