Friday, March 25, 2011

NZBM Review: DIED IN THE WOOL by Ngaio Marsh

Died in the Wool
By Ngaio Marsh (HarperCollins, 1945)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

To close out NZLawyer’s celebration of New Zealand Book Month, it seems only fitting to look at a book from one of our all-time greatest authors, perhaps our most popular ever on the global stage, whose books are still in print more than 75 years after she was first published – our Grande Dame of mystery writing, Ngaio Marsh.

Christchurch born-and-raised Marsh penned 32 murder mysteries starring her English gentleman detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn between 1934 and her death in 1982, and is world-recognised as one of the ‘Queens of Crime’ of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (alongside Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Margery Allingham), with international critics even calling her “the finest writer in the English language of the pure, classical, puzzle whodunit”.

Died in the Wool is one of four Alleyn tales Marsh set here, and is made even more interesting as it was actually published during the Second World War, and incorporates aspects, issues, and perspectives on the war climate into the murder mystery plotline. Being written before Marsh would have even known when or how the war would end, some of the settings and characterisations can give insights into New Zealand at that time that no recently written historical novel, no matter how well researched, can match.

One summer evening in 1942, formidable Member of Parliament Florence “Flossie” Rubrick goes to the wool shed on her high country property to rehearse a patriotic speech, and disappears. Three weeks later, she’s found – dead inside a bale of wool at an auction. Inspector Alleyn, in New Zealand on war security matters, comes to the high country sheep station more than a year later, after Rubrick’s husband has also passed away from illness, and tries to piece together what really happened to the polarising MP, based on the testimonies of several acquaintances. At the same time, concerns are raised about the top-secret security work being carried out by two young men – have the blueprints for the new anti-aircraft device been leaked?

In effect, Marsh has transported the classic British ‘country house’ murder mystery, with its closed environment and small amount of characters – all of whom have a motive for killing the victim, into a rural New Zealand setting during the war. But she also does a few things differently that help Died in the Wool stand out. Alleyn arrives months after the murder, so can’t rely on the crime scene clues and observations usually available to detectives – instead he has to weigh the differing recollections of the residents (each has its own chapter, eg “According to Terence Lynne”). This device gave Marsh not only a different structure and investigative method, but the opportunity to ‘voice’ varying views and concerns about what was going on during the war, through her different characters.

In general, Marsh’s plots weren’t quite as intricate as Christie’s puzzles, but she was the superior writer when it came to setting, description, and giving her characters more depth and layers. Compared to today’s crime novels, the pace is somewhat languid, and at times, the language used dates the book, but decades after it was published, Died in the Wool remains an absorbing, enjoyable read.

Reprinted many times over the decades, Died in the Wool is now available as Volume 5 (in trio with Final Curtain and Swing, Brother, Swing) of the Ngaio Marsh Collection set of omnibus editions, published by HarperCollins UK to commemorate Marsh’s Diamond Anniversary.


This article was published in today's (25 March 2011) issue of NZLawyer, and is republished here with permission.


Have you read DIED IN THE WOOL? Any of Ngaio Marsh's murder mysteries? Do you still enjoy 'old style' cosy mystery novels? What makes them so re-readable decades later?


  1. Craig - Fine review of a good read. I liked this one very much, too, and I think you've hit quite well on its strong points.

  2. I enjoyed reading a Ngaio Marsh (can't remember which one) just after I finished the biography by Joanne Drayton.
    Yes, it's interesting to read something that is very much of its time. It can offer insights today that the author may not even have had herself. This can cross genres: I'm having a similar experience right now with an NZ non-fiction classic, Shirley Maddock's Islands of the Gulf, published 1966.

  3. Great review Craig, I read it many years ago but your review wants me to read it again. Many thanks.
    Bookman Beattie

  4. This was a good read. I could just imagine the smell in the warehouse! I too found it interesting to see how she depicted New Zealand in the war - that "third column" concerns were uppermost there too.

  5. This remains one of my favorite Ngaio Marsh books. I especially love the title.

    Great review.