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: False Scent

I haven’t read ‘False Scent’ since a teenager, so I came to this book as if I hadn’t read it as to be honest, a lot of water has gone under several bridges since then, so I couldn’t remember much about it or the murderer, except how the victim is despatched – that was all! I didn’t even remember halfway through who had done it! Marsh was the next author after Christie to get my attention. This was mainly via Nana Simmons who had an enviable bookcase of crime classics that I would pour over whenever I visited, always going home with one or two gems she had lent me. Ngaio Marsh was an early one for me. As with ‘False Scent’ I loved the theatricality of her books, the ‘over the top’ personas of her cast, compared with the anonymity of her detective, Alleyn. Some have called Alleyn dull, boring, even a bit beige. Although Marsh does widen his character with his wife, Agatha Troy (or Troy as she is known), when Troy isn’t about, Alleyn does what he does best, which is detect. Whereas Christie and Sayers had extremely extrovert detectives, Marsh embellishes her suspects with these traits while her detective is in the background sniffing out the clues as the players of the drama act their little socks off and put themselves into difficult situations due to the fact they can’t keep their mouths shut! And Alleyn just stands and listens…

That is why I like Alleyn so much and why Marsh was so good at her characters. Her plots may not be as labyrinthine as Christie’s, but she makes up with characterisation. Many times her novels were placed within the theatre (Opening Night, Death at the Dolphin, Light Thickens) to provincial plays (Overture To Death, Off With His Head). In ‘False Scent’ we are in the house – or rather, the domain of the Grande Dame of the theatre, Mary Bellamy. Preparing for her Birthday party, we are told Mary has reached a milestone. From a few clues one gathers she is fifty, but nobody dare utter that dreaded word! Despite being successful, with the years going by, Mary feels insecure and has developed what can only politely be called ‘professional jealousy’. Those who have stood in her shadow for years are now coming out and taking up some of the spotlight. This leads to outbursts from Mary and upsets on what should be a special day. It all ends in disaster and death. Marsh’s tale has a house full of dramatics, from actors to directors to playwrights. Everyone stood to lose if they were caught on Mary’s wrong side. She could be ruthless as well as benevolent.

The whole case for Alleyn is wrapped up in one night with the help of his usual reliable associates, Brer Fox, Bailey and Thompson. I sat down and finished ‘False Scent’ over a weekend. It brought back the joy of a Marsh novel. I love the theatricality of it all and her characters are sublime. Here, Marsh shows the cast of characters in her drama. You see the petty squabbles, the malicious asides and the tantrums. P.D. James followed Marsh’s formula, setting up the scene first, slowly showing the dynamics of those involved before the crime is committed. ‘False Scent’ may not be her best known Alleyn case, but there are all the Marsh ingredients here for a delightful and engaging read. Sublime.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating