Classic Crime

Ngaio Marsh

Ngaio Marsh was born in Christchurch, New Zealand. There is some uncertainty on her date of birth as Marsh’s father allegedly didn’t register his daughter’s birth until 1900, although it is believed her date of birth was 23rd April 1895. Ngaio was the only child of Rose and Henry Marsh. Marsh studied art at the Canterbury College in N.Z. and then went on to join the Allan Wilkie dramatic company as an actress and toured the country. Acting was to become Marsh’s greatest love and she is lauded as single-handedly revitalising the theatre in New Zealand.

In her own words, Marsh describes how her famous creation came into being.

‘He was born with the rank of Detective-Inspector, CID, on a very wet Saturday afternoon in a basement flat off Sloane Square in London. The year was 1931.’

Having finished a crime novel and the rain still pouring down, Marsh began to wonder if she had it in her to write her own crime novel. Armed with an umbrella, she plunged out of the flat as the darkness descended at about four in the afternoon, and beat her way to a stationer’s where she bought six exercise books, a pencil and pencil sharpener. Back in that cold flat, Alleyn began to take shape and soon Marsh had the beginnings of her first novel that was ‘A Man Lay Dead’.

Alleyn went on to appear in a further thirty-one books and a handful of short stories, collected in ‘Death on the Air and Other Stories’. Mainly her books were based within the UK, but she also took Alleyn to Rome and four were based in her beloved New Zealand: ‘Vintage Murder’, ‘Colour Scheme’, ‘Died in the Wool’ and ‘Photo Finish’.

Alleyn’s future wife, Agatha appeared in the sixth book, ‘Artists in Crime’. Marsh describes how Agatha came to life when a boat Marsh was travelling on drew away from the wharf at Suva. Being an enthusiastic painter in those days, she regretted not having her paints with her to capture the scene before her. To remedy this lack of fulfilment, Marsh created and transported the artist, Agatha Troy on to a boat making a sketch of the wharf at Suva! It was this setting where Alleyn and Agatha first meet.

Marsh was, and always has been considered one of the four major ‘Queens of Crime’ of the Golden Era alongside Christie, Sayers and Allingham.

In 1966, Marsh was awarded what she called, ‘her damery’ for services to the arts. In 1978 Marsh was awarded the Grandmaster Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Marsh never married and although she lived with her ‘companion’, Sylvia Fox, she always denied being lesbian. In those days such things were not really discussed. Marsh wrote her autobiography, ‘Black Beech and Honeydew’, and two biographies have also been written about Marsh since her death.

The house Marsh lived in all her life is now part of the Heritage Trust and is now called Ngaio Marsh House. It has been preserved and is still the same as when she died. As one puts it, ‘it is like she has just stepped out of the house for a while…’

Ngaio Marsh died on the 18th February 1982. Her last Alleyn novel, ‘Light Thickens’ was published posthumously that same year.

Review: The Nursing Home Murder

The Home Secretary, Sir Derek O’Callaghan is pushing through an unpopular but necessary piece of legislation. It is something Sir Derek has been working on for months… and the pressure is taking its toll on his health. As he gives a speech in the House of Commons he collapses and is rushed to hospital where Sir John Phillips is requested by Sir Derek’s wife, Ruth to conduct the operation. That is the last thing Sir John wants to do on a man he threatened to kill only a few days before. Failing to find another surgeon, Sir John heads the emergency operation on Sir Derek. The patient is present, but then so are a number of people inside the operating theatre who also have a bone of contention with their patient. However, the operation is a great success and Sir Derek is taken back to his room. Within the hour Sir Derek is dead and Alleyn, after a post-mortem done on the insistence of Sir Derek’s widow, is assigned to wade through a seething mass of emotion and politics.

This third Alleyn novel from Marsh shows a stark improvement from the previous two. Although her first two books were enjoyable, there is a maturity in her writing here and you feel that Alleyn and Marsh are starting to get comfortable with each other. It is when you reach this novel the reader can begin to see the flashes of brilliance, drama and humour that would pepper future novels.

Obviously, Troy hadn’t come on the scene, but we do have Alleyn’s old staple in the form of the stocky ‘Brer’ Fox who is always a joy to read and one of those characters who you enjoy meeting again, although you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the law with Inspector Fox. In her early novels, Marsh also used journalist, Nigel Bathgate as Alleyn’s foil, who personally I found annoying. Thankfully, he plays a small, if irritating role in this book alongside his equally annoying fiancée, Angela. Thankfully, whether she got bored with him or not, Marsh wrote Bathgate out of the series about halfway through.

Sir Derek’s piece of legislation is left opaque. I figure that Marsh felt all her reader needed to know was that it was unpopular. More was given in the TV adaptation, but here it is not dwelt upon except that it is unpopular.

Although Marsh delivered a good mystery, they are not as involved as Christie. However, where Christie was not one for characters, this is where Marsh excels.

She really was sublime at painting and fleshing out her actors and giving them wonderfully weird quirks and bizarre names such as Mr Percival Pyke Period, the purveyor of letters in ‘Hand in Glove’ or Idris Campanula in my favourite, ‘Overture to Death’. You can tell that Marsh greatly enjoyed assembling and directing her motley crew in each novel.

Now, Harper Collins have re-issued a facsimile of the first edition of this book from ‘The Detective Club’, this is a wonderful opportunity to rediscover this playful writer who deserved her place in the annals of crime fiction. There is a credit to Dr Henry Jellett who was Marsh’s surgeon when she had an operation. It was with his guidance that Marsh could make her way through the operating theatre and the medicines used. As Marsh gained notoriety, Jellett's name was dropped from the cover.

Included here is a foreword from Stella Duffy which is very interesting and Marsh’s first three chapters of an unpublished Alleyn novel called, ‘Money in the Morgue’. The notes to this unfinished novel started at the tail-end of the Second World War, have been handed over to fellow New Zealander, Stella Duffy to complete. With regard to Alleyn’s timeline, ‘Money in the Morgue’ falls between ‘Died in the Wool’ and ‘Final Curtain’ and Marsh was to base her novel again in New Zealand. So, thirty-five years after her death, we now have a new Alleyn novel to look forward to. It will be interesting if Duffy will imitate Marsh or if she strikes out in a new direction. I am sure Ngaio Marsh, being ever the artist, would be intrigued to see how this latest novel will turn out.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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