Grand dames of crime: Ngaio Marsh

In a previous post I wrote about Charlotte Jay and a session at the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival inspired me to investigate more of the grand dames of crime fiction. This week I take a look at Dame Ngaio Marsh.

New Zealand born Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) has ancestry that traces back to the twelfth-century de Marisco family of pirate lords operating from Lundy Isle (at the entrance to the Bristol Channel). This might be where she inherited her Amazonian appearance from. It is said she was a charismatic woman with a deep powerful voice, a powerhouse, domineering and determined, characteristics she no doubt needed as a single woman to make it in a mans world.

Marsh was the only child of unconventional parents, raised on a diet of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. Her governess Miss Ffitch would often read her The Tragedy of King Lear, so little wonder she grew up to be one of the original queens of crime and well as a theatre director.

She painted, wrote and acted all through school but her writing career took off after she sailed to the UK in 1928 and started to carve out a name as a crime fiction author alongside other greats such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Ellingham. Marsh’s first novel A Man Lay Dead, written in the depths of the Depression, introduced Roderick Alleyn, a tall, cultured, detached, thorough Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. An objective man with a poor memory which meant he kept a small note book of important facts on hand constantly.

Marsh went on to write thirty two crime detective novels mostly set in English theatres and country houses, plus four in New Zealand, thirty-two with the Alleyn character. More popular than Agatha Christie at the peak of her career, one million copies of ten of her titles were released by Penguin and Collins on the same day in 1949, all of which sold.

When Marsh returned to New Zealand to care for ailing parents the second world war broke out. During the war period she volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver ferrying repatriated soldiers around for Christchurch’s Burwood Hospital, and continued to write novels, producing four book during the war period (Death of a Peer, Death and the Dancing Footman, Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool).

A woman with energy and an appetite for productivity she also began an association with the Canterbury University College Drama Society during this time which enabled her to invigorate her love of Shakespeare. The association resulted in more than twenty full-scale Shakespearean productions, from her 1943 modern-dress Hamlet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (starring Sam Neil) in 1969. Marsh’s last theatrical effort was to write and produce a one-man show in 1976 on the Bard of Avon, Sweet Mr Shakespeare.

Marsh never married or had children and was fiercely protective of her private life. She enjoyed the close companionship of women including her lifelong friend Sylvia Fox, and a coterie of handsome gay boys, but denied being a lesbian. She was generous with her knowledge and skills and nurtured many young writers and actors, splitting her time between New Zealand and the UK.

Marsh’s autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew was published in 1965 to no great acclaim, then in June 1966 she became Dame Ngaio Marsh (Civil Division) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. In 1978 four of her novels were adapted for New Zealand television, and she received the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement as a detective novelist from the Mystery Writers of America. She just just managed to complete her final work, Light Thickens, a mere six weeks before her death from a cerebral haemorrhage and eight weeks before her eighty-seventh birthday. She died in her own home, which was subsequently turned into a museum.

Marsh’s elegant writing style and well crafted characters set in credible settings was said to have helped raise the whodunit detective novel to the level of a respectable literary genre. Harper Collins published a biography of Ngaio Marsh by Joanne Drayton in 2008 (Ngaio Marsh – her life in crime) which is said to have bought Marsh to life removing her from the cardboard cutout of respectability and decorum she presented publicly to the world to reveal a more textured and fascinating story of a woman with ambiguous sexuality who revealed in the abandon of the Bohemian Riviera and enjoyed her place at the table of the English in-set.

More information:

Images from the web: Book covers; the woman herself; immortalised on a New Zealand stamp.

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