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Marsh, Ngaio

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years ago

Ngaio MarshSource: Wikipedia


Edith Ngaio Marsh DBE (1895-1982) was an author and theatre director from New Zealand. There is some uncertainty over her birth date as her father neglected to register her birth until 1900.


Ngaio (IPA /'naɪəʊ/) Marsh was educated at St Margaret's College in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she was a foundation pupil. She studied painting at the Canterbury College school of Art before becoming an actress with the Allan Wilkie company touring New Zealand. From 1928 onward she divided her time between living in England and in her native New Zealand. She was honoured with a DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) in 1966.


Internationally she is best known for her 32 detective novels published between 1934 and 1982. Along with Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers she was classed as one of the four 'Queens of Crime' - female British crime writers who dominated the crime fiction genre of the 1930s and 1940s. Of the four, her work shows the greatest depth of characterisation, and often carries a vein of humour.


All her books feature British CID detective Roderick Alleyn and most are set in England or New Zealand (with Alleyn either on holiday or on secondment to the New Zealand police). Several novels feature Marsh's other loves, the theatre (Vintage Murder, Final Curtain, Light Thickens) and painting. Alleyn marries a painter, Agatha Troy, who he meets during an investigation.


Marsh's first love, however, was the theatre, and in New Zealand she is remembered more for her theatrical endeavours than her detective fiction. In 1942 she produced a modern-dress Hamlet for the Canterbury University College Drama Society (now UCDS), the first of many Shakespearian productions with the society until 1969. In 1944, Hamlet and a production of Othello toured a theatre-starved New Zealand to rapturous acclaim. In 1949, assisted by entrepreneur Dan O'Connor, her student players toured Australia with a new version of Othello and Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. In the 1950s she was involved with the New Zealand Players, a relatively short-lived attempt at a national professional touring repertory company.


Ngaio Marsh published a lyrical but not very revealing autobiography, Black Beech & Honeydew (Collins) in 1966. Margaret Lewis published an authorized biography, Ngaio Marsh, A Life (ISBN 0908912064) in 1991.


Mike Grost on Ngaio Marsh


Ngaio Marsh


Ngaio Marsh is an anomalous figure in the history of detection. Her books tend to follow a common pattern. There is an opening section, which introduces the characters and sets up the background of the crime. This section is quite elaborate, lasting roughly four chapters or 70 pages. It climaxes with the actual murder. At this point, Police Inspector Roderick Alleyn enters, and spends the next 150 pages investigating the crime. Finally, he solves it, and the book ends.


The opening and post murder sections of a Marsh novel seem like two different books. The opening chapters seem like a sparkling novel of manners, with sophisticated characters and comedy, an interesting cultural background, often centering on either the theater or the arts, and a great deal of gracefully written prose. They form an excellent novella, and are the part of Marsh' books I like best. They are modern equivalents of such writers as Oscar Wilde or Saki. And the cultural background is often quite insightful. For example, Death of a Fool (1956) centers memorably on traditional English morris dancing, and has a surprising amount to say about gender roles and sexual discrimination. Other examples of Marsh books whose opening sections are better than their rest include The Nursing Home Murder (Chapters 1 - 6), A Wreath For Rivera (Chapters 1 - 5) and Hand in Glove (Chapters 1 - 3).


The murder investigation sections tend to be dull and dreary. And her solutions, while they can be admirably bizarre, elaborately plotted, and uninhibited, do not at all reach the level of a Christie or a Carr. We are always reading in mystery criticism about writers who are allegedly full of literary talent, but whose skill with mystery plotting is not as good. I tend to be skeptical of this - just about everyone who is "hard-boiled" is described as being full of literary greatness - but in Marsh's case this is a good description of her work. The early novella openings of her best books really do show literary talent. Marsh is not at all like many writers who attempt to bring literary values to the crime novel. Her books are not mainstream novels given a thin coating of mystery. On the contrary, the elaborate but boring murder investigations waste far too much time in Marsh's fiction. The books fall proudly and clearly into the paradigm of the Golden Age detective story. Marsh was not at all ashamed of being a mystery writer. She just wasn't very good at it. At least much of the time.


The best Marsh book I have read, from the standpoint of a mystery novel, is False Scent (1959). It combines a well constructed, intricate plot with a delightful look at theater people. I would love to find more works of this quality in Marsh's oeuvre. Among her earlier novels, the huge Death in a White Tie (1938) is also outstanding for its storytelling and plot construction, large cast of characters - 16 well rounded people in addition to her regulars - and its fine writing.


Marsh's novels understandably wowed Howard Haycraft, and other critics who were trying to bring more literary merit to the detective novel. Above all, Marsh had a profound grasp on what "civilization" meant. Her characters are witty, cultured, kind hearted, and wonderfully flamboyant. I feel that I am a better person for having read her.


Ngaio Marsh's viewpoint character tends to be a young woman. This woman is young, naive, respectable, normal and middle class, and the people she observes tend to the exact opposite: older, outrageously eccentric and upper crust. She represents a person who has few social ties; they are people who are deeply committed to some social program, such as the theater, English folk culture (Death of a Fool), or an unusual family. She is potential, as yet unrealized; they are experience, what happens when humans commit to a life and start living it. She is usually quietly virginal, and looking for a respectable romance; they are usually deep in various relationships. They are her future, and she is their past. They are often a magic mirror of her dreams and aspirations, exaggerating them, transforming them, and mocking her hopes for romance or theatrical success in strange, bizarre ways. She is often a New Zealander, from that most democratic and middle class of all nations; they are British, and exist within a painfully stratified culture. She is an outsider, they are involved in society, often too much so. In her own quiet way she is a rebuke to them and their follies; but they are also a rebuke to her isolation and lack of human living. They need her intelligence, balance and good sense, but she needs their eccentricity, personality, and realized character. In many ways, she seems to be a portrait of Ngaio Marsh herself as a young girl, a young woman come from New Zealand to take part in British cultural life. She and the rest of the characters form a comic balance, one of the main structural supports in Marsh's comedy of manners. Oddly enough, for all her quietness and self effacing qualities, she is often the catalyst that stirs up the action, and who triggers the events among the other characters, who, however bizarre, were previous to her arrival in some sort of dramatic balance with each other.


Marsh's portrait of an eccentric family in Death of a Peer (1940) is one of her most sympathetic creations. Like Craig Rice's equally eccentric family in Home Sweet Homicide (1944), it is one of the most authentic and emotionally involving families in detective fiction. Only families this eccentric and this individual seem real.


Marsh's techniques


Some of Ngaio Marsh's 1930's stories deal with murder traps. In Overture to Death (1939), this is mechanical. In Artists in Crime (1938), this is partly mechanical, partly just a physical death trap. Mechanical traps recall such Realist school writers as the Coles, and to a lesser degree Vincent Cornier. Marsh' treatment differs from the Coles in that in the Coles, the death trap mechanism is revealed only at the end, and treated as part of the puzzle plot of the mystery story, whereas Marsh tends to reveal it soon after the murder, and feature it as just another plot component of an intuitionist detective tale. Marsh' traps rarely involve any scientific or medical knowledge, unlike those of the Bailey school. They tend to be purely physical, almost Rube Goldberg devices. They tend to express aggressiveness, one person zapping another. The emphasis on the Freudian abnormality of the repressed in Overture recalls Allingham's Police at the Funeral (1931).


If her first mystery A Man Lay Dead (1934) is strained, her second Enter A Murderer (1935) is extremely readable. The opening murder and investigation (Chapters 1 - 10) shows Marsh's storytelling at its most effective. We have the complex interplay of characters in a single building, with characters moving around according to a precise schedule - here involved with the staging of a play. A similar progression through space and time will mark Death in a White Tie (1938) and False Scent (1959). As often in Marsh, the murder method is complex, and its preparation and physical components play an important role in the unfolding plot. These components often survive to serve as clues for the detectives: here they are a gun, two sets of bullets, a desk and some gloves. Watching them weave in and out of the story adds to the complexity of the plot. Marsh shows a great sense of proportion in the construction of her story. Different time segments are well marked out by events in the theater, such as intermission, setting up the stage, a blackout, and lights going on in the theater. The various temporal zones are often culminate in climaxes. The whole thing gives a pattern reminiscent of the forms in classical music, where different movements give rise to climaxes, then are followed by new sections of the work.


Marsh's 1930's novels include homages. Inspector Alleyn pays tribute to R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke in Enter A Murderer. There are jokes about Edgar Wallace in Chapter 2 of that novel, and references to G.K. Chesterton in Chapter 1 of Death in a White Tie. There is also a family named Carrados in this book, just like Ernest Bramah's sleuth Max Carrados, and a brief discussion of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories in Chapter 26. E. Phillips Oppenheim is referred to in Chapter 6 of The Nursing Home Murder (1936), although the actual plot of the book, with a right wing minister threatened by radicals for introducing a bill in Parliament, derives from Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men (1905).


Marsh tends to use echoes among her groups of characters. There are three mature women in Death in a White Tie, each with a young woman they are "bringing out" as a debutante. Two of the women have imposing older husbands with whom they have difficulty. There also is an uncle and a young man, who simply mirror the women pairs with a gender reversal. Similarly, there are three love triangles in Enter A Murderer, each with the unpleasant murder victim at their center. There are two brother-sister pairs in Hand in Glove, something that winds up playing a role in the plot.


Marsh's work has a visionary quality. There are several scenes of altered states of consciousness in Death in a White Tie, usually involving dreams. Even when awake, her characters often feel as if they are dreaming. It is usually the "good" characters who get these states, especially the detective, and her central protagonists. There are also several key scenes in Death in a White Tie where gender identity breaks down, and the line between male and female gets temporarily blurred. The sympathetic Bunchy combines male and female characteristics. Such androgyny recurs with full force in the Morris dancing of Death of a Fool. Dancing always has a visionary and allegorical quality in Marsh's writing. In general, despite their surface realism, Marsh's stories have a great deal of surrealistic spirit.


Marsh's hero and heroine emphasize traits that often are considered by society to belong to the other gender. Roderick Alleyn has social sophistication and good looks, whereas Troy has creative spirit - she is a great painter - and fierce independence. Alleyn can get along with anybody, and has remarkable verbal skills he can use to make contact with different people's world views, establishing harmony with them. He is a maintainer of the social balance, and often intervenes to help other people's social relations. Such a maintenance is often considered a female task, just as Troy's making of great art a male one.


We often see a scene in Marsh, then later on a witness to that scene will add some details we did not get as readers during the scene. For example, the footman adds info in Chapter 10 about the blackmail scene in Chapter 1 of Enter A Murderer. Similarly, Bunchy adds insight in Chapter 2 to the scene in the previous chapter with Lady Carrados in Death in a White Tie. The scene in the dressing room in Chapter 2 of Enter A Murderer is discussed and "extended" throughout the novel - the reader is always getting new information about it. The various events at the ball in Death in a White Tie are revisited again and again with a Resnais like fervor. When avant-garde directors like Alain Resnais chop up temporal logic and show their scenes in non-temporal sequence, it is ascribed to their interest in Modernist technique. But Marsh does the same thing within the framework of a detective story, and does it with great complexity and skill.


Marsh and the Van Dine School


Is Ngaio Marsh in the school of Van Dine? This is a difficult question. Certainly her books are not direct imitations, the way early Ellery Queen novels are. Also, Marsh is perceived to be part of the British Golden Age, and all Van Dineans allegedly are American, so Marsh is automatically excluded. Nor is Inspector Alleyn an arrogant genius in the Philo Vance tradition. Yet, one can cite several features. Marsh's characters are sophisticated members of artistic groups; this sophistication is somewhat similar to Van Dine's settings of collectors and connoisseurs. Van Dine's and Marsh's detectives are both highly suave social aristocrats. Marsh's plots are always formal puzzle plots, definitely distinct from the Freeman -- Crofts tradition. They sometimes use impossible crimes, just as Van Dine's sometimes use impossible crimes. The investigation of the movements of characters around a well defined crime scene, often a single building, forms a major portion of the plot in both Marsh and Van Dine and Ellery Queen. Van Dine often used bizarre murder methods; these reappear in Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and in Ngaio Marsh. What a character could have known and not known, forms a major clue in Marsh's Death in a White Tie, just as in Ellery Queen. Philo Vance and Ellery Queen have close personal and working relations with the police; Thatcher Colt and Roderick Alleyn are policemen. There is a whole team of recurring policemen in Marsh's books, just as in Van Dine and Queen. Marsh, like Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, and Van Dine, shows liberal political attitudes. Marsh's chapter titles often show formal patterns, like those of Ellery Queen. There is often social comedy in Marsh's books, as there is in Van Dine, Queen and Stout, but the paradigms of the detective story are taken seriously by all of these authors: Marsh, Van Dine, and most of his followers give the impression that they genuinely like and enjoy the detective story, and value its formal properties and conventions. Thriller elements rarely appear in either Marsh or the Van Dineans, unlike say, MacDonald or the Bailey school.


Ngaio Marsh's first name


A few thoughts on Ngaio Marsh's first name. Reference books often state that the g is silent, and this is perhaps how Marsh pronounced the name herself. But I suspect that in Maori, the Polynesian language spoken by the pre-English inhabitants of New Zealand, this word begins with an "ing" sound, or rather an "ng" sound, without the i. This is not allowed in English, but many languages, such as those in the Bantu group, begin words with an ng. One can easily learn to pronounce such words. Secondly, the New Zealand flowering tree known as "Ngaio" in Maori, is scientifically called Myoporum. It is the type genus of the small family Myoporaceae. Myoporums are also found in Australia, where they are known as sugarwoods: they exude a sweet substance which is chemically closely allied to sugars, although technically not quite a sugar, strictly speaking. (Similar substances used to be put into many "sugarless" gums, although these chemicals were just as sweet, fattening, and teeth rotting as real sugars.) Myoporums have clusters of little white flowers. They are closely related to the Australian shrubs known as Poverty Bushes (Eremophila), which have brightly colored and more conspicuous flowers. I've seen Poverty Bushes in real life, in Santa Barbara's Francesci Park, but have only seen Myoporums in photographs. Studies on the chloroplast gene ndhF suggest that Myoporums and Poverty Bushes are in turn closely related to butterfly bushes, the Buddlejaceae.


Ngaio Marsh TV Films


There are two Marsh films I especially liked. One is a New Zealand version of Colour Scheme, made circa 1978 for New Zealand television by director Peter Sharp. The opening scene, where most of the characters are sitting around one large dining room table in a Northern New Zealand hot springs resort, conjures up the entire democratic milieu of New Zealand in a marvelous fashion. It seems profoundly symbolic. This film is full of excellent location photography of both the hot springs, and Maori sites. It is very well done on all levels, but has apparently never been shown in America (I saw it on Canadian TV, which we get here on the border in Detroit.) The same team made a film of Died in the Wool, Marsh' other New Zealand story, which I have never been able to see. My other favorite Marsh adaptation is one of the recent British TV movies, Hand in Glove, well acted by a cast that includes Sir John Gielgud.






A Man Lay Dead (1934)

Enter a Murderer (1935)

The Nursing-home Murder (1935, with Henry Jellett)

Death in Ecstasy (1936)

Vintage Murder (1937)

Artists in Crime (1938)

Death in a White Tie (1938)

Overture to Death (1939)

Death at the Bar (1940)

Surfeit of Lampreys aka Death of a Peer (1941)

Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)

Colour Scheme (1943)

Died in the Wool (1945)

Final Curtain (1947)

Swing, Brother, Swing aka A Wreath for Rivera (1949)

Opening Night aka Night at the Vulcan (1951)

Spinsters in Jeopardy aka The Bride of Death (1954)

Scales of Justice (1955)

Off with His Head aka Death of a Fool (1957)

Singing in the Shrouds (1959)

False Scent (1960)

Hand in Glove (1962)

Dead Water (1964)

Death at the Dolphin aka Killer Dolphin (1967)

Clutch of Constables (1968)

When in Rome (1970)

Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)

Black as He's Painted (1974)

Last Ditch (1977)

Grave Mistake (1978)

Photo-Finish (1980)

Light Thickens (1982)

The Collected Short Fiction of Ngaio Marsh aka Death on the Air (1989)


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