Ngaio Marsh was born in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand which is where she also died. Her father evidently neglected to register her birth until 1900 so there was some uncertainty about Marsh’s correct age.
Educated at St. Margaret’s College, Marsh studied painting at the Canterbury College New Zealand School of Art. She then joined the Allan Wilkie company as an actress and began to tour New Zealand. She had finally found her vocation. It was from 1928 that Marsh divided her time between New Zealand and the UK.
Despite doing so much for the theatre which Marsh always claimed was her first love, her crime novels are still in print and greatly admired. Unlike most practitioners of that age, many were more concerned with plot rather than character. For Marsh who had always been fascinated with people and characters in her plays, Marsh was to bring to life many grotesques and larger than life characters to the pages of her books. Marsh first introduced Roderick Alleyn to the public in 1934 with his first case in ‘A Man Lay Dead’. In total Marsh write 32 Alleyn novels finishing with ‘Light Thickens’ which was completed shortly before her death in the February and published posthumously that same year in 1982.
Marsh was always classed as the four ‘Grande Dames’ of crime fiction alongside, Christie, Sayers and Allingham. Many of her novels were set in her love of the theatre, ‘Enter a Murderer’, ‘Vintage Murder’, ‘Opening Night’ and her last ‘Light Thickens’. Some that were not directly involved with the theatre still had theatrical connotations – ‘Overture to Death’, ‘Off With His Head’ and ‘False Scent’ amongst others.
Marsh was very generous to her creation and appears to have rubbed along with Alleyn quite nicely for nearly fifty years. Alleyn married Agatha Troy after their initial encounter in ‘Artists in Crime’. Even though not appearing in every novel, Troy (as Alleyn called her) was never far from Alleyn’s thoughts and she plays a part in Marsh being able to portray ‘Alleyn – the man’ as well as ‘Alleyn – the policeman’. They had one son, Ricky.
To learn more about Ngaio Marsh read Joanne Drayton’s fascinating biography, ‘Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime’.
Review: Overture to Death
To be honest, I cannot explain why we have not had this particular author on the Classic Crime on Crimesquad.com as she has been a stable favourite of mine for decades. When my grandmother introduced me to Agatha Christie in the eighties, Ngaio Marsh was not far behind. As with all readers, you read one author, you like the method and the way they write and then you search for different authors cut from the same cloth. Marsh I discovered on my first scouting mission – it was in a local newsagents (no huge website to surf or large bookstore in the 80’s!) that my eye was taken by the now very famous covers of Marsh’s book back then that have become somewhat collectors items. All her book covers had the plain white background with one item, be it a goblet (Death in Ecstasy) or a champagne cork (Vintage Murder) or as shown here, a water pistol on the cover of ‘Overture to Death’. All had the signature ‘drips of blood’ that looks remarkably thin and watery compared to present day covers. However, Ngaio Marsh and I had a rocky start. My first book was ‘Enter a Murderer’ which I didn’t particularly enjoy (I re-read it again recently and although it has its merits I still didn’t think it her best). However, back then I gave Dame Ngaio another go and struck gold with ‘Overture to Death’ which I absolutely loved and has remained one of my favourites of the Golden Age ever since.
This novel showcases the best elements of Marsh’s writing. She excelled when setting her novels in the theatre and at the beginning of most of her novels there is a ‘Cast of Characters’ which lends to the dramatic expectation of her novels. In ‘Overture to Death’, Marsh transports her novel to the English countryside where a small community are putting together an amateur dramatic performance in the village hall. Marsh had a wonderful ear for dialogue and was able to bring distinctive voices to all her characters in this novel. The wonderful competitiveness between Miss Idris Campanula and Miss Eleanor Prentice is sublime as they try to unashamedly out-fox one another at every step, especially when it comes to gaining the affections of the Rector.
It isn’t too long before tempers rise and petty jealousies amongst the dramatic personages are soon at each others throats with both elderly ladies usually found at the centre of the storm. So on the first night there is the overture followed by a short bang, followed stage left with a dead body and many suspects. It is up to the Alleyn to sort out the petty squabbles that litter the village and find the culprit of the crime. Marsh has been accused of her novels being ‘too English’. I think like many plays, her novels played on the caricature and the grotesque which is why Marsh made Alleyn as plain as possible – so that we would watch the play unfold with all the colourful actors and not always on the detective who stepped amongst the shadows to find the truth. However, accompanied by Br’er Fox and fingerprint expert, Bailey, Alleyn still enjoys one or two theatrical moments of his own. Last Christmas I gave a friend of mine ‘Overture to Death’ as she had never read Marsh before. She loved it and I recently re-read it again and still loved it. And when you’ve finished it I am sure you will want to try more, especially now that Harper Collins has re-printed Marsh’s novels in some wonderful omnibus editions – so you get three novels for the price of one! Other personal favourites to look out for are ‘Death and the Dancing Footman’ and ‘Dead Water’ which I found spot on. Marsh was definitely a class act and has shown she has the staying power of any grande-dame of the stage or of the written word.
Reviewed by: C.S.