(1895 - 1982)
Dame (Edith) Ngaio Marsh, the novelist, dramatist, short-story writer, theater producer, non-fiction writer, scriptwriter, autobiographer, travel-writer, painter and critic was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 23 April 1895. Over a fifty-year span from 1932 to 1982 Marsh wrote 32 classic English detective novels (from which her fame derives) while simultaneously building a reputation as a distinguished theater director with a predilection for the plays of Shakespeare.
Marsh’s singular achievement was to capture international acclaim in literature and the arts while contributing massively to nurturing the cultural life of her Southwest Pacific homeland, a contribution that was explicitly recognized in 1951 when she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA). In 1955 Marsh won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Red Herring Award (significantly, for a novel entitled Scales of Justice) and she was made a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1978. Furthermore, as a citizen of the British Commonwealth, Marsh was awarded the OBE (Officer of the British Empire) in 1948 and in 1966 was created DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. In 1962 she received the first Honorary Doctor of Literature degree conferred by the University of Canterbury (Christchurch) and in 1967 a new playhouse, the Ngaio Marsh Theatre, was named in her honour at Canterbury University (in recognition of a legendary series of student productions there across three decades).
Dame Ngaio Marsh was both a clever, stylish femme du monde and a femme de lettres. Her very name enacts a symbolic binary opposition between Old and New World elements: a confluence echoing the indigenous (Ngaio being a New Zealand native tree) and the imported (a family surname from the marshes of Kent, England). Seen thus, "Ngaio" connotes New World zest - a freshness of outlook, insight and energy, whilst "Marsh" suggests an Old World gravitas grounded in notions of a stable lineage and secure traditions.
LIFE AND BACKGROUND
Her birthdate was a richly symbolic and portentous one, given that 23 April is both St. George’s Day and the legendary birthdate of Marsh’s beloved Bard, William Shakespeare. The other (Antipodean) aspect of her dual heritage is encoded in what became her first name: Ngaio’s parents asked an uncle, a lay missionary fluent in the native Maori language, to choose a Maori name for their first-born, and he selected "Ngaio", which denotes a native evergreen tree but may also connote "expert", "clever", "deliberate", "thorough" or "restless". As an adult, she cut an imposing, dignified and - sometimes - an intimidating figure. Jack Henderson, an early student actor (who played Prince Hamlet in her first, 1943 production) described Ngaio as "tall (5 foot 10 inches), thin, mannish in appearance, flat-chested, rather gawky..., dressed usually in beautifully cut slacks, [possessing] large feet with shoes like canal boats, [and] a deep voice - yet intensely feminine withal."
Dame Ngaio traced her ancestry on her father’s side back to the twelfth-century de Marisco family of pirate lords operating from Lundy Isle (at the entrance to the Bristol Channel), who as Normans spoilt the kingdom of Henry III and harassed the realm along the Devon coast. They were known "also as de Montmorency, Marsh and by other derivations", according to Anthony and Myrtle Langham (Lundy: Bristol Channel [Bradford: Broadacre Books, 1960], p.16). These malefactors were imprisoned in the Tower and at Newgate and Fleet prisons on charges of high treason. The Marsh family seat was Marton (East Langdon, near Dover). Marshes (starting with William atte Marshe of Marton Manor, 1380) resided in Folkestone, Hitchen and Epping, the latter being the residence of Dame Ngaio’s father, Henry Edmund Marsh (born in 1863). Thus her people were gentry (or upper-middle class) on the Marsh side, but of a particular sort. They were neither young sons who long knew that they would have to make their own way nor were they Remittance Men (wealthy blackguards sent out to the colonies to purify Mother England), but young men with disappointed expectations: Marsh’s maternal grandfather retained specious hopes of a fortune in Chancery and her father’s fortune declined through a series of small, but incremental and downward, reversals.
Henry Marsh, a native Englishman born in Surrey, was one of ten children raised by a widowed mother in straitened circumstances. The family were tea-brokers and the males of the Marsh family served the Crown or tried to follow careers in the professions. Ngaio’s father planned to practise as a banker in Hong Kong (and learnt some Mandarin at London University for this express purpose) but became tubercular, and a well-placed uncle arranged a position for him in New Zealand with the Colonial Bank. While this venture went bust shortly after Henry Marsh’s arrival, he was able to secure a clerkship in its successor, the Bank of New Zealand - a position he held for the remainder of his working life. Having enjoyed amateur theatricals in England (having designed and built theatrical scenery in the family’s country house), the young bank clerk met the talented thespian, Rose Seager, in the context of staging a play in late Victorian Christchurch. Miss Seager was a second-generation New Zealander and an actress of outstanding talent. She was the daughter of two energetic colonists: Edward William Seager (an impoverished blind-maker and schoolmaster) and Esther Coster (whose family derived from Gloucestershire but ultimately from the Netherlands). Edward Seager (1828-1922) arrived in Lyttelton in 1851, acting initially as a marriage-broker in Immigration then joining the police force (being something of an instinctive criminologist) and designing the first police uniform in the province. As a Sergeant Seager arrested James Mackenzie, the notorious Scottish sheep stealer of the South Island High Country, in 1855. Appointed Gaoler-in-Chief of the Lyttelton Gaol he was later placed in charge of the Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum in 1864, at Sunnyside (with his wife acting as Matron) until 1887, after which he was an usher of the Supreme Court, Christchurch. At Sunnyside Seager, a kindly man, had practised innovative therapies such as mesmerism, conjuring, amateur theatricals and magic lantern shows with and for his "children" (the inmates). The potent influence of Seager’s criminological work and his lavish exercises in live theater upon the quick, lively mind and imagination of his grand-daughter Ngaio Marsh can easily be imagined. It would be simpler - and more accurate - to describe the impact of her beloved "Gramp" in terms of leaving an imprint (a legacy which he recognized when presenting Ngaio with a coat which had been worn by the actor Edmund Kean).
The Seagers were a highly-talented, artistic, civic-minded and close-knit clan and at least three households of Seagers lived in Cashmere, including Samuel Hurst Seager (the architect who in 1905 designed Marton Cottage for Ngaio’s parents) and the family of the pioneering scientist Robert Speight who had married Ruth Seager and taught geology at Canterbury College for 27 years. Professor Speight was an inspirational figure who acted as Curator of the Canterbury Museum and was heavily involved with the Southern Alps which Marsh revered (serving in the Canterbury Mountaineering Club and on the Arthur’s Pass National Park Board and the Waimakariri River Trust).
Marsh remained an only child
of loving - if somewhat unconventional - parents (people deemed rather eccentric in a
conformist colony). As a mature woman Marsh expanded upon her childhood,
describing herself with some asperity as a little girl who "was obligingly
introverted, delicate, solitary, fanciful, pig-headed and rather morbid." She
attended a select city dame school and between the ages of ten and fourteen
Ngaio was taught at home by her mother and an itinerant governess, one Miss
Ffitch, who introduced Ngaio to Shakespeare via King Lear, "of all the plays!" Marsh wrote that she developed into "a
difficult but tougher child under the ministrations of a governess and
generally throwing my weight about." In 1910 Marsh attended a small independent
girls" secondary school run by an order of Anglo-Catholic nuns. It was called
St. Margaret’s College. It was here that Ngaio imbibed her great love of
history and firmed up her commitment to the theater. From the astringent Miss
N.G. Hughes (trained at the University of London) Ngaio derived what she later
called "an abiding passion for the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare." Ngaio
involved herself in putting on plays for the school break-up for three years in
a row and also read and wrote stories for the Lower School girls after she
became Head Prefect. Although Ngaio had written a little play, Cinderella,
which was performed with Seager cousins when she was ten, her first appearance
on a public stage was in a play of hers called Isolene. In 1913 Ngaio’s
friend Helen Burton directed Ngaio’s adaptation of a George Macdonald
fairy-tale which she called The Moon Princess. Marsh later recalled
these "no doubt rather sickening little fairy plays". The St. Margaret’s years
were also important for Ngaio in that she then became "an ardent
Anglo-Catholic", noting that she "took out [her] adolescence in religious
fervour and a passion for English literature and history." The High Church
ceremonial was clearly formative: there is clear evidence that her intense
experience of late Edwardian Anglo-Catholicism was an extension of her growing
sense of theater, and there was certainly a fundamental identity between her
aesthetic and religious impulses which Charles Brady once neatly described as
"the gracious aegis of a gentle Anglican humanism" and which inflected all of
Marsh’s subsequent writing. But perhaps the greatest influence was that exerted
by her doting parents:
The wisdom and understanding of my parents was my sheet-anchor. Throughout my childhood they adopted a civilized and enlightened attitude to books, allowing me to read anything I chose. I did not realise that poorly written or entirely unsuitable works were simply kept out of my way. When I was about 14 my father introduced me to Fielding and Smollett, merely remarking that they wrote good stuff. I waded through them, utterly bewildered by passages that might well be considered unsuitable but certainly in no way injured by them. A sense of style was engendered.
An additional factor was the fact that the Marsh threesome lived in an atmosphere redolent of theater; as Marsh observed, always, "all through these years, there had been in our small household a feeling for, and an absorption in, the theater. It was rampant on both sides of the family and I cannot remember a time when I did not hear long and entrancing discussions of plays and actors."
Marsh attended the School of Art at Canterbury University College from 1909 on a part-time basis (throughout the duration of her secondary schooling) then formally enrolled full-time from 1914 to the end of 1919. The School was then affiliated to the Science and Arts Department (South Kensington) which would account for its traditionalist and conventionally English bias. Marsh enjoyed these years immensely, made new friends and won an impressive clutch of scholarships and prizes, being obsessional about painting. She later stated that her work as a painter never "panned out right", adding: "I acquired quite a lot of technical skill and got quite a long way with my painting, but I never felt I was doing what I knew New Zealand was about with my paint." The deeper and "more valid" impulse was towards words, and the timely visits of the Allan Wilkie Theater Company from 1916 introduced Ngaio to live Shakespearean production of a professional quality. She once described the opening night of their Hamlet as "the most enchanted I was ever to spend in the theater." Inspired by this, Marsh wrote yet another play - a "terrible stap-me-and-sink-me melodrama" which she called The Medallion. Her mother encouraged Ngaio to show Mr Wilkie this script and, to her great astonishment, Allan Wilkie told her "You’re going to do something in the theater" and employed her for a tour of New Zealand in the autumn and winter of 1920 so she could learn the theatrical "ropes" necessary for such work. Marsh later described the joys of her tour with this actor-manager’s company (in the Burbage-Kean tradition) as "a winter of content", but while it made the real break with Art School, Mrs Marsh would not allow Ngaio to join the Company on an overseas tour. Marsh thus taught speech craft at a School of Drama and Dancing in Christchurch run by Bill and Fred Reade Wauchop then spent much of the 1920’s producing a series of travelling vaudeville shows and large scale fund-raising charity pantomimes for an organisation known as Unlimited Charities (Bluebell in Fairyland , The Sleeping Beauty  and her own play, Cinderella ). These productions moved her into the charming and stylish circle of a Canterbury gentry family whom she dubbed "the Lampreys" (Death of a Peer), following them to England in 1928, there embarking on a business venture in running a smart gift and decorating shop in Knightsbridge and writing A Man Lay Dead in 1931-32 before returning to New Zealand in time to attend to her mother before her death from liver cancer in November 1932.
Throughout the 1930’s Marsh continued to paint occasionally, produced more detective novels on contract with Geoffrey Bles, travelled again to England and the Continent, looked after her elderly father and produced more plays for local repertory societies in the South Island and sat out the Second World War in real anguish for her friends enduring the privations and turmoil of war in Britain. She wrote a play, Exit Sir Derek, for Canterbury College’s Drama Society (performed in October 1935) with the help of a renowned Scottish gynaecologist, Dr Henry Jellett, with whom she co-authored the novel Death Follows a Surgeon which was published as her third crime novel, The Nursing Home Murder, in 1935. During the war, Marsh undertook voluntary aid work (60 hours per fortnight) at Burwood Military Hospital (Christchurch), driving repatriated soldiers in a hospital bus and was a much-loved Head Section-Leader of the local Red Cross Transport Unit. It was while performing these strenuous duties and writing more novels (such as Death of a Peer , Death and the Dancing Footman  and Colour Scheme ) that Marsh began a lengthy and mutually enriching association with the Drama Society of Canterbury University College which resulted in 20 Shakespearean productions, from her 1943 "Hamlet in Modern Dress" until A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which starred Sam Neill) in 1969.
When Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh came to New Zealand with the Old Vic in 1948 Ngaio’s students were asked to entertain the Oliviers after their performance. Marsh was able to get two talented actors started on shaping up the first act of what she called "my obsession": Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922). The Oliviers advised Marsh to take her students to Australia and thus was born the hectic three-week tour of January-February 1949 which Marsh recalled as "one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me ." It also served as a prelude to the establishment of The British Commonwealth Theater Company under Marsh’s direction in 1951, intended to celebrate the Festival of Britain in the Commonwealth. To this end Marsh left in 1949 for London, arriving for the "Marsh Million" that July (a gala occasion in which a million copies of her books were published on the same day). In January - February 1950 Marsh produced Six Characters for a short season at the Embassy Theater in London. 1951 was a year of triumph and trial: Marsh published Night at the Vulcan and she was voted "one of the best active mystery writers by an international poll" (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. September 1951). She also brought the BCTC out to open with G.B. Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple in Sydney, then onwards to New Zealand where primitive conditions defeated the enterprise which Marsh later described as "a confusing, a baffling, an exciting, an exhilarating and at the same time a disappointing experience" for her and her talented troupe of thespians (which included John Schlesinger, Peter Howell, Peter Varley and Basil Henson). In 1955 Marsh attended The International Conference on Theater History in London as one of the New Zealand representatives. In 1960 she paid her first visit to the Far East and the United States. In 1962 her children’s play A Unicorn for Christmas was turned into an opera by David Farquhar and given its world premiere, with the libretto by Marsh. (It was performed again in 1963 for a Royal Tour in front of Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh). That same year Marsh delivered the Macmillan Brown Lectures on Shakespearean production (Three-Cornered World) and received an Hon.Doc Litt. degree from Canterbury University. In 1965 Little, Brown published Marsh’s long-awaited autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew. In June 1966 she became Dame Ngaio Marsh in the Queen’s Birthday Honors (Civil Division) and in July 1967 she produced Twelfth Night to open the new Ngaio Marsh Theater in Christchurch, Dame Ngaio’s final full-scale production was of Shakespeare’s Henry V at the close of 1972 (when she was 77 years of age) to mark the opening of the theater in the new Christchurch Town Hall civic complex, and her last theatrical effort was to write and produce a collaborative one-man show on the Bard with Jonathan Elsom (one of her protégés): Sweet Mr Shakespeare in 1976, after her final visit to the United Kingdom (which had become her second home). Life had to be quieter in these later years but Ngaio loved to entertain and her home remained a lively gathering-place for her wide circle of friends of all ages. 1978 was, in many ways, an annus mirabilis for Dame Ngaio, for in March of that year she received the Grand Master Award of the MWA along with Dame Daphne du Maurier and Dorothy B. Hughes at the Second International Congress of Crime Writers held in New York (which, sadly, ill-health prevented her from attending), and in September 1978 her phenomenally successful thirtieth detective novel, Grave Mistake, was published. Also that year a New Zealand television company released adaptations of four of her novels entitled "Ngaio Marsh Theater". Dame Ngaio spent 1979 continuing to write the bulk of her novel Photo Finish, which was published in 1980 to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Collins Crime Club, underscoring the fact that she was indisputably the last of the original Golden Age "Crime Queens". Further ill-health forced Dame Ngaio to employ a full-time live-in housekeeper and, sensing that her time was drawing to a close, she finally tackled the novel which she had so long nursed a strong urge to write: Light Thickens, which confronts the theatrical taboo surrounding "the Scottish play" and which provides a superb insight into how Marsh believed Macbeth should be staged. She just managed to complete this text in her new study (with its entrancing and expansive views of both her English-Antipodean country garden and of her beloved Southern Alps mountains range) a mere six weeks before her death on 18 February 1982: a gentle passing occasioned by a speedy cerebral haemorrhage. Thus Ngaio Marsh’s long, intensely productive and fruitful summer was at end, to the distress of multitudes of her admirers in her native New Zealand and overseas.
AN "IMPURE" DETECTIVE NOVELIST
Together with Agatha
Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham, Marsh is considered amongst
the four "Queens of Crime" of British detective fiction. But in 1978 she noted
that the genre "has not only proliferated, it has diversified" beyond
the "pure" classic form typified by Poe, Gaboriau, Conan Doyle, Freeman Wills
Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, John Rhode and, latterly, Agatha Christie - a format in which the
characters, "however animated or enchanting are two-dimensional"
("Entertainments", p.28). Marsh chose to hoist her flag with Sayers and
Allingham in what she dubbed the ‘impure’ form:
Here the puzzle element is retained, but the author now seeks to present his characters in the round and the style is, or purports to be, sophisticated. This is [impure] because, while the author can be honest, penetrating and exhaustive about all the characters except one, he is obliged to be devious and misleading in his handling of that one - the guilty person. It is this flaw, I think, that sets three-dimensional detective writing, however brilliant, in a minor category ("Entertainments", p.30).
In this sense Marsh followed
E.C. Bentley’s ground-breaking mixture of the serious and the comic in his
influential parody of the classic strain of the detective tale, Trent’s Last
Case (1913), which played alluringly with what LeRoy Lad Panek terms "the
game spirit of the genre" (Watteau’s Shepherds. p. 24) and in which
Bentley "ridicules and appreciates, parodies and imitates" classic " pure puzzle" conventions (ibid.,
p. 29). Marsh also claimed of detective fiction that "In all other respects it
is a form that can command our aesthetic approval", being, "by its nature,
shapely" ("Entertainments"p.30). Panek has noted that the tripartite
Aristotelian dramatic structure of prostasis, epistasis and catastrophe
appealed to Marsh and that her unvarying formula consists of "introduction,
murder, interviews, recapitulations, action, re-enactment, and summary"
never tired of defending her chosen form in terms of its required structural
It must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The end must be an extension and development of the beginning and the end must be implicit in both. The writing is as good as the author can make it: nervous, taut, balanced and economic.
For Marsh constructed intricate plots and light, melodramatic, quasi-Wodehousean characterizations in order to parade some quite complex individual characters (main roles) whose vigorous interaction often eclipses the central crime and its detection. The critic Jean White once usefully observed that with a single phrase Marsh "can limn a character into the memory."
We must recognize that Ngaio Marsh had a very fine sense of humour and was probably attracted in the first instance by the comic possibilities of detective fiction - a form of literature which also values civility and style, the disciplined observance of conventions, shapely writing, and a strict economy of expression (all virtues which were embodied in her own life). As Maurice Richardson once wrote in "The Observer," Marsh led "the cultivated, zestfully characterised, drawing room school of crime fiction."
On the other hand, as the English crime novelist P.D. James has observed, Ngaio Marsh sought, "not always successfully, to reconcile the conventions of the classical detective story with the novel of social realism." But classic detective fiction by its very nature is not truly realistic: instead it often presents a very artificial and literary world, reminiscent of works by P.G. Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley (in their very early novels). The emphasis is upon the handling of facts within the broader framework of fantasy, enchantment and romance. And of course Dame Ngaio’s best novels are always markedly theatrical at least in tone if not in their setting.
The critic George Grella has pointed out that formal detective fiction "remains one of the last outposts of the comedy of manners in fiction" and that many of the characters in Golden Age detective novels are indeed "preposterous" eccentrics and caricatures, for they are descendants of the old heroes of the English comic tradition in drama and the novel.
The novelist Nabokov maintained that great works of art create new worlds unto themselves and that every worthwhile writer can be considered "as a storyteller, teacher or enchanter.. but it is the enchanter in him that makes him a major writer." Peter Quennell has added that the novelist’s function "is both to observe life and to produce his own universe." In this sense Ngaio Marsh was, to many readers, an enchanter of considerable literary power, and in the same manner as Dickens (though not at the same level) she created a distinguishable fictional "world" definably her own. As if to underscore this fact, when writing in the "Daily Express" after Dame Ngaio’s death, Jenny Rees lamented: "Her world is one that her millions of readers do not want to forget".
While Marsh certainly loved all things English (and especially London, her father’s birthplace) she stayed rooted in New Zealand and always came back to her home and friends, retaining artistic and imaginative integrity in her fictional craft and in her role as the informal godmother of the New Zealand theater. She once wrote from London to a friend that New Zealand had become "a sort of looking-glass country for me like Alice’s and I shall feel just like she did when I finally ‘jump down on the other side’. At the moment on this side, it is Spring and one is in London and to walk down a street is rapture enough."
Yet Dame Ngaio did always "jump down on the other side" and return to Christchurch where, as Bruce Mason has written, her delightful house in Cashmere "stands as an emblem of her life: a simple cottage embellished and transformed by her taste, intelligence and decorum just as simply by living and working there she embellished and transformed the artistic life of our country." This was certainly true of her legacy to a living and professional theatre in New Zealand, but Ngaio Marsh never confined her patronage, expertise and vigorous support to matters merely theatrical. She was also a prominent figure in fostering a climate hospitable to the growth of all the arts in her home country. For example, when in 1946 the late Charles Brasch announced his intention to found and edit a new literary quarterly, "Landfall", Ngaio Marsh wrote to him that "It is extremely good news... It is very badly wanted here... Surely there should be enough people now to welcome and support a quarterly of integrity. I shall do so very gladly and am grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to help." She was a founder subscriber and remained as such (and also a worthy contributor) until her death. This was typical of Dame Ngaio’s intense interest in the emergence of artistic maturity in New Zealand.
But her fame will rest beyond New Zealand, for hers was a small, but distinctive, contribution to world literature, as a formative figure in the evolution of the detective novel. For Marsh bequeathed to the form the use of a polished literary style as well as giving it a pronounced shove towards more rounded and novelized characterization, particularly in her sustained depiction of her own principals, Roderick and Troy Alleyn.
Marsh was what Anthony Burgess would have called a "minor classicist"
(a writer anchored in a particular
period and set of over-riding assumptions), a category which can embrace such notable authors as Thomas
Love Peacock or E.F. Benson, with whose satirical and playful spirit Marsh’s
fiction has a good deal in common. Marsh wrote social mystery novels and
British country melodramas in a highly literate idiom which recalls a statement
in Newsweek that "Reading a Ngaio Marsh mystery is like being in the
company of a gracious, spirited raconteur." John Chamberlain, writing in The
New York Times in the 1940’s, described Marsh as "a writer with a
marvellous sense of comedy and a gift for crazy characterization that rivals
the ability of the Aldous Huxley of Chrome Yellow days" - a judgment that she would
have found immensely agreeable given her admiration for Huxley (sharing that
interest with her father and buying a first edition copy of Point Counter
Point in London upon its release in 1928). Marsh was also an ardent devotee
of Richard Harris’ The Ingoldsby Legends (1840), with its repertoire of
Kentish legends and grotesque narratives. Marsh obviously took to heart the
Moral of "The Hand of Glory":
This truest of stories confirms beyond doubt
That truest of adages - "Murder will out!"
In vain may the blood-spiller "double" and fly,
In vain even witchcraft and sorcery try:
Although for a time he may ‘scape, by-and-by
He’ll be sure to be caught by a Hugh and a Cry!
Jennifer Dunning judged that "A good deal" of Marsh’s enduring popularity may be attributed to the character of Roderick Alleyn: "Though more practical, Alleyn was as charming, imperturbable, scholarly and nearly as suave as Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, that paragon of English detectives", but "Dame Ngaio’s detective, was more down to earth" (New York Times obituary to Marsh, 19 February 1982, B4).
Marsh frequently noted that the day before she began penning A Man Lay Dead she had visited William Cartwright’s Dulwich College Picture Gallery in Camberwell, Dulwich being the public school which her own father had attended (and founded by the Elizabethan tragedian and Master of the King’s Bears, Edward Alleyn [1566-1626]). Casting around for a name for her detective the following day, Marsh thought: "Very well, as a sort of compliment to Popsie I shall call him Alleyn."
The Golden Age crime novel proved a haven for lost certitudes after the Great War: Malcolm Bradbury, writing about the English novel in the 1920’s, notes that the world presented is one "in which all heroism is lost, all quests suspect, all virtues unestablishable." Bradbury finds reflected in the works of Huxley, Waugh and Wyndham Lewis "a sense of an historical lesion, a lapse in human order... a transference into a wounded and post-war age." There is no evidence that the two global wars and the Great Slump shook Marsh’s faith in stable and established order. Rather, Marsh played her part in building what Evelyn Waugh termed "little independent systems of order" of her own, and it is no accident that she once described her chosen genre as a "queer, circumscribed and isolated form of fiction." Erik Routley, one of Marsh’s most perceptive critics, finds this noteworthy:
"She is never oppressed by any sense of the evil which righteousness is at war with" and thus she "stays completely and obediently within the humanist tradition of human perfectibility", so that her fictions sail in calm waters "with no intrusions from ethical doubt" (Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story. p. 149). This has consequences in Marsh’s treatment of political allegiances which stray from a deeply conservative norm, as can be seen in the heavy-handed and cynical treatment of the "Lenin Hall lot" (The Nursing Home Murder), the Coombe Left Movement (Death at the Bar), the Ng’ombwanans (Black as he’s Painted) and the flaming socialist Actors’ Equity representative in her last novel, Light Thickens.
The scholar Stephen Knight has studied crime fiction from the standpoint that both its "form and content together create the crucial realisation of a pleasing, comforting world-view" (Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction ) London, 1980], p.5). This is amply borne out in Marsh’s conservative fictions with her distrust of ideology (be it religious or political), a pattern which persisted until her final novel in the anachronistic figure of Bruce Barrabell, the actor of "extreme leftist views" (Light Thickens, Ch. 2, III), who belongs, improbably in Thatcher’s Britain, to an organizational throw-back to the angry ‘thirties called The Red Fellowship, to which - even more improbably - this unreliable Equity representative "was asked to report on his tasks". Barrabell has tried to politicize the cast of the Dolphin Theater, but they have been too much occupied by confronting the challenge of staging Macbeth "to listen to new ideas", such as Barrabell’s startlingly recherché assertion that Shakespeare "was a very confused writer. His bourgeois origins distorted his thought-processes" (Ch. 5, IV). This stock caricature of Marxism strikes a false note, but it is not Marsh’s political ineptitude which is here on display but, rather, a clue that it is Barrabell whose head was addled -- his wife had been "beheaded by a maniac" called the Hampstead Chopper, as Alleyn explains to Fox (Ch. 8, II).
The paradigm of deviance is clearly central to detective fiction and its containment via such safe "oddballs" as Barrabell confirms Knight’s thesis. In Marsh’s work deviance is customarily split into two distinct streams: (i) the criminally deviant (the killer or the spy, such as the traitor Sir Harold Lacklander [Scales of Justice] ) and (ii) the politically deviant (usually a Communist - a motif which made its first appearance in 1935 with Nurse Banks in The Nursing Home Murder and which re-surfaced in 1982 with Barrabell). The outsider per se is often a foreigner, such as Mrs. Anna Bünz (Death of a Fool), who could have been blamed for the homicide, inasmuch as she suffered ill-treatment at the hands of William Andersen, observed the secret rehearsal of the Dance of the Five Sons and thus knew about the decapitation sequence well in advance. In the final analysis, however, anyone who may be described as anti-establishment is, by definition, "deviant" in the Marsh cosmos.
Marsh’s familiarity with the nuances, norms and rituals of the British upper classes was derived from her friendship with a noted Canterbury family with whom she became involved in producing large and small-scale charity productions from 1924. Ngaio later acted as a secretary for Captain Tahu Rhodes (a gentleman-farmer who had married Helen Plunket, the daughter of a New Zealand Governor) at a large estate called "Meadowbank" on the outskirts of Christchurch. When Tahu and Helen ("Nelly") Rhodes returned to England in 1927, Marsh was soon invited to follow them to their privileged lairs at Alderbourne Manor (Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire) and at 11, Eaton Mansions (Knightsbridge, London, SW3). Once ensconced in England with them, Marsh blossomed in their ambience and, in her words, "grew into the English scene". The noted Australian novelist Kylie Tennant put it this way: "The ‘Lampreys’ [a code-wood for the Rhodes and their Plunket relations] were not accustomed to deny themselves anything and they swept Ngaio Marsh out of the clutch of her loving parents her widespread New Zealand family, into the glitter of a London made scintillating by their luxury and improvidence." Marsh met Tahu and Nelly’s singular relations who were members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy (Tahu himself had descended from a wealthy colonial family of pioneering whalers, traders and runholders whose origins were merely in the northern English [Yorkshire] middle class). One of these, Lord Patrick Plunket, the seventh Baron, was the son of Sir Terence and Lady Dorothé Plunket, intimate friends of the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) and became an equerry to King George VI and later Master of the Household to Queen Elizabeth II (for whom he was the equivalent of a charming, worldly-wise brother until his death in 1975).
EMERGENCE OF A NEW TALENT
Marsh received a
generally favourable first notice for A Man Lay Dead (her first novel) in The Times Literary
Supplement, albeit as "Mr Marsh", whose "manipulation of motive and alibi
is neat and effective and repays careful attention" (17 May 1934, p.362).
However the reviewer did chide that "His [sic] methods of detection ... are somewhat
distracting. Detective-Inspector Alleyn is a ‘most superior person’, expensively
educated, a connoisseur of good living and rather tiresomely familiar." That
reservation aside, "Nicholas Blake" (C. Day Lewis) referred to fictional
sleuths being toned "down from the Holmes to the Roderick Alleyn type", which
shows how Marsh’s adoption of a more naturalistic Great Detective led the way,
as did her creation of Inspector T.R. Fox (to replace the twittish amateur
Nigel Bathgate), who transcended the classical convention of the dull sidekick
as found in Conan Doyle (Dr Watson) and Christie (Captain Hastings). "Teddy"
Fox becomes the perfect confidante and, at worst, a comic foil - being a discreet, stolid,
redoubtable colleague who, when rounding up suspects, reminded Alleyn "of a
dependable sheep-dog" (Hand in Glove, Ch.7). Marsh explicitly sent up
the rigidity of this convention from her first book when Alleyn described
detection as "the lousiest job in creation" and noted dryly that "Every sleuth
ought to have a tame half-wit, to make him feel clever" (A Man Lay Dead,
Ch. X). In Death in Ecstasy Alleyn tells Fox "in many ways ours is a
degrading job-of-work", for "all the time there’s a trap and a rope and a
broken neck at the end if we do our job properly" (Ch. XIX). Having demolished
romantic conceptions of the super sleuth, Alleyn constructs an impromptu poem
of tribute to his faithful partner in criminous exposure:
Hercules or Hector?
Ah, no! This is our Inspector Fox,
Mens sana in corpore sano,
Standing in the witness-box (ibid.).
Not surprisingly the
anonymous reviewer of the next novel, Vintage Murder, in John
O’London’s Weekly (21 May 1937), dubbed Alleyn "that likeable chap" which,
Marsh later conceded, pleased her very much "because that was how I liked to
think of him: a nice chap with more edge to him than met the eye" (The Great
Detectives [ed. Otto Penzler], p.5). Erik Routley added that Alleyn is "the
last romantic hero in detective fiction" and "a very satisfying and amiable
kind of superman - the sort of person it is worth trying to keep on the right side of" (Puritan
Pleasures, p. 147). A reviewer of Hand in Glove described Alleyn as
"that comfortably upper-class Scotland Yardbird" (Life, 22 June 1962).
Yet as Baroness (P.D.) James asserted: Alleyn, the son of a baronet, "is devoid
of social or intellectual elitism" and in Marsh’s books "it is the upper-class
characters who are petty-minded, treacherous, delinquent or murderous and are
judged accordingly", for "in her fiction she never assumed that they were
morally superior to less privileged beings ("P.D. James on Ngaio Marsh"
[London, 27 April 1995], p.2). So far from that, when confronting a "Top"
family labelled "delightful lunatics" by their doctor, Allyen disclaims boredom
in his investigative work:
"People interest me and homicide cases are so terrifically concerned with people. Each locked up inside his mental bomb-proof shelter, and then, suddenly, the holocaust. Most murders are really very squalid affairs, of course, but there’s always the element that pressmen call the human angle" (Death of a Peer, Ch. 7).
Writing to a fellow New Zealand writer in 1939, Ngaio Marsh made whimsical reference to the American dust jackets of her novels: "I colour up to the roots of my hair when I see them", Marsh observed, for on them "I am represented as a bosom friend of royalty, famous statesmen, and the entire intelligentsia of Great Britain." This image of Marsh - which was largely the consequence of her long association with the aristocratic English family of a New Zealand Governor (The Hon. Sir William Lee, Baron Plunket) - has endured and become a distinct liability in more aggressively egalitarian times, for Marsh is portrayed in a novel, Blue Blood (Penguin Books, 1997), by the New Zealand author Stevan Eldred-Grigg, as an unsalvageable personality stuck irretrievably in the groove of arrogance, a disfiguring social snobbery, frustrated (lesbian) sexuality and in a stunted state of morbid psycho-pathology. It is, quite simply, a thoroughly misleading portrayal and one which makes Blue Blood a counter-factual novel, a purely speculative fiction. It was in fact due to the quality of her prose writing that Ngaio Marsh escaped much of this kind of parochial carping: in December 1940, having barely escaped from fallen France, Somerset Maugham wrote to Marsh from New York to inform her that he had read several of her novels "with great satisfaction" and added: "Thank you for many pleasant hours I owe to you".
Marsh was unquestionably the product of what Samuel Hynes has called The Edwardian Turn of Mind (1968), being brought up - even in colonial New Zealand - " in an age dominated by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, joint "symbols of the established order - rich, punctilious, and unoccupied - and behind them the past, a corridor of peace, sunlit and pastoral." When Hynes writes of Edwardianism seeming "like a long garden party on a golden afternoon - to those who were inside the garden", he captures exactly the prevailing spirit, assumptions and ongoing appeal of "Golden Age" detective fiction of which Dame Ngaio remained a devoted exponent across five decades and thirty-two novels (from A Man Lay Dead  to Light Thickens , completed just six weeks before her death, aged nearly 87). It is no exaggeration to claim her as the last of the Golden Age practitioners even while acknowledging her vital contribution towards modernizing and enlivening that form. To Samuel Hynes’ reference to The Great War ("the trauma of 1914-1918") ending the Edwardian garden party "as swiftly and rudely as a shower of hail or a four letter word", we must insist on a vital biographical point: that the transplanted garden party certainly ended for the young Ngaio Marsh with the tragic death of her childhood friend and fiancé at Flanders. It is, in fact, entirely likely that the emotional shock and long-lasting trauma of that loss was a relevant factor in Marsh’s later decision to work within the emotionally restricted confines of Golden Age literary conventions - what she called "this queer, circumscribed and isolated form of fiction." For while Anthony Berkeley Cox observed in 1930 that the detective story was developing into the novel with a crime theme, "holding its readers less by mathematical than by psychological ties", Jessica Mann reminds us that Marsh "never wrote anything which touched her emotions more deeply" than this range-resistant fiction (Deadlier than the Male, p. 224) and that she seemed "unable to force herself into the self-exposure which revealing more [about her characters] would entail" (p.225).
Ngaio was certainly set on a career in authorship of some kind, for having arrived in London for the first time in December 1928 she was informed only in January 1929 of her election to the Society of Authors (a mere two years after Dorothy L. Sayers joined), on the strength of having successfully written a long series of syndicated travel articles for the New Zealand press. Marsh brought with her to England the first three chapters of a novel set in New Zealand but she abandoned the project, feeling herself "steaming busily down the well-worn rails of the colonial novel" and instead helped a close friend run a small decorating shop in London’s West End (Beauchamp Place), where she and Helen Rhodes (neé Plunket) made dining mats, "knick-knacks" and "a lot of ghastly little lampshades", almost as parodies of Noel Coward’s Shop-girls. Her mother, Rose Elizabeth Marsh, arrived to share the delights of a first visit to the Motherland but soon afterwards became ill. One very wet Sunday afternoon Marsh was cooped up alone in their basement flat, reading a detective story (probably a Christie) and decided to try her hand at the form. "I wondered if I could write detective fiction. It was as much to amuse my mother as anything else", she later asserted. In fact, however, Ngaio Marsh had been to view a play by Mrs Christie, Alibi, within a few weeks of her arrival in London and she wrote of this "detective drama" that "The play has much more quality than most of its kind, and the character drawing is firm and interesting" (The Press, 15 December 1928).
1928 was a portentous year for Marsh to first visit the Home Country: Anthony Berkeley had that year founded The Detection Club (to which Marsh was later elected a member), women first voted in Britain and Police Commissioner Bying was appointed to reform and revitalize the police force after the drop in public confidence and police morale occasioned by the tumultuous General Strike of 1926. Kathryne McDorman reminds us that the moment when Marsh created Chief Detective-Inspector Alleyn was an era in England which saw "entrenched class attitudes having to retreat at every advance of professionalism" (p. 122 Rahn) and that Marsh cleverly made the transition between the aristocratic Lord Peter Wimsey and today’s police procedural - "Only Marsh envisions an aristocratic cop whose right hand man is a working-class inspector struggling to meet the requirements to rise in the ranks of Scotland Yard" (ibid., p.123). Indeed in later books we discover that Roderick Alleyn not only lectures new recruits (Clutch of Constables ) but also authored a textbook on police procedure, Principles and Practice of Criminal Investigation (Vintage Murder , Ch. VI).
ENGLISH COUNTY SETTINGS
Though a colonial writer, Marsh received exposure to a refracted image of the country house ideal via two grand country estates in her New Zealand homeland: "English Meadowbank" (near Leeston on the Canterbury Plains) occupied by the Rhodes family and the Mount Peel Homestead built in pioneering days by the Aclands and memorialized as "Deepacres" in the prologue to Death of a Peer. Once established in Buckinghamshire in 1928 Ngaio Marsh began to frequent a large number of English country homes - a familiarity which greatly helped her in constructing closed-circle puzzles in locales such as Dorset, South Devon, Cornwall, Suffolk, Kent, the Channel Islands, the fictional "East Mardian" and "Swevenings" (Barfordshire), the latter which was probably modelled upon Chevenings in Kent (which was the quintessential country for Marsh, given her lineal links with the Weald of Kent and Romney Marsh).
Marsh eagerly followed the Sherlockian dictum that "the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside" ("The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"). W.H. Auden pondered on the attraction of an English village setting for writers of detective fiction and decided that it most approximates to an Eden in our world, for the more Edenic and untroubled the Great Good Place, he says, "the greater the contradiction of murder": the country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighbourhood... better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet.
The greatest advantage for a detective novelist in a country village lies in the fact that the author does not have to portray events, in Marsh’s words, on "too wide a screen" and that with small groups a restricted range of characters can be isolated. This principle is vividly exemplified in Death and the Dancing Footman (1941) where the isolation and enforced combination of several volatile and competing individuals in a Dorset country house allows their subliminal tensions and underlying anxieties to surface and lead infallibly to a crime of violence. Village settings are, of course, a hallmark of classical detective fiction and Cohn Watson has labelled this microcosm "a mythical kingdom, a fly-in-amber land." Marsh’s depiction of English villages has many affinities with the unique comic writings of E.F. Benson (particularly the Lucia novels). Benson’s "Riseholme", where Lucia Lucas reigns as Queen of an old-style Elizabethan village, possesses an unmistakable air of that venerable eccentricity which one comes to associate with fiction about small English hamlets (e.g. through Benson’s Colonel Boucher, Daisy Quantock and Georgie Pillson). Marsh’s own knowledge of, and reverence for, English villages came first-hand and she shared the attitude of Margery Ahlingham in her portrayal of her native "Auburn" (East Anglia) in The Oaken Heart (1941).
Raymond Williams has written that "the true fate of the country-house novel was, its evolution into the middle-class detective story." The features which define the pure village settings were crisply summarized by Ferdinand Tönnies in his pioneering study, Community and Society: Gemeinschft and Gesehlschaft (1887; rpt. Michigan State University Press, 1957). In Tönnies’ terms, Gemeinschaft society is community-based; if forms a cohesive social unit bonded by shared norms and values and commanding strong allegiance from its members. This type of social structure is best represented by the old rural peasant village and, in Howard Becker’s view, it can be labelled a "sacred" society in that "it is characterized by primary group relations, by allegiance to tradition, and by belief in supernatural entities. A secular society, like Tonnies’ Gesellschaft, is characterized by rationalism, science, and perpetual innovation."
It was not until her eighth
novel, Overture to Death (1939), that Marsh wrote a traditional English
village novel (set in the hill country of Dorset). Coming from a country
lacking well-established social cohesion (vividly, if satirically, attested to
in Samuel Butler’s romance inspired by topsy-turvey elements experienced in New
Zealand social life, in Erewhon ), it was scarcely surprising that
Ngaio Marsh would derive much fascination from writing about well-ordered
village communities with the comfort of the Church, an almost ritualistically
ordered life pattern and intimate communal ties. Marsh’s best village setting
was offered in Scales of Justice (1955), mainly in the form of the
memorable Nurse Kettle’s warm love of the countryside around the mythical
"Swevenings", Barfordshire. It is significant that Marsh chose a Middle English
word meaning a dream place for the name of the village (suggesting that she was
both conveying an ideal composite of the village ideal as well as playfully
extending Butler’s game , for having named New Zealand "Nowhere" in palindromic
fashion). Alleyn informs Fox that the area has had a turbulent past ("This
Colonel’s blood is not the first soldier’s by a long chalk to be spilt at
Swevenings" [Ch. 4, 3]) and yet the opening description of the place follows
along Auden’s lines as if to emphasize the stark contradiction of murder in
such an idyllic setting:
Nurse Kettle pushed her bicycle to the top of Watt’s Hill and there paused. Sweating lightly, she looked down on the village of Swevenings. Smoke rose in cosy plumes from one or two chimneys; roofs cuddled into surrounding greenery. The Chyne, a trout stream, meandered through meadow and coppice and slid blamelessly under bridges. It was a circumspect landscape. Not a faux pas, architectural or horticultural, marred the seemliness of the prospect (Ch. One, I).
The adjective "cosy" well epitomizes this bucolic environs, and Nurse Kettle pauses to "observe triumphantly: ‘Where every prospect pleases’, without completing the quotation, because in Swevenings not even Man was Vile" (Ch. One, 1). Little would she suspect all the nasty undercurrents which actually suffuse the village, from the Phinn-Cartarette rivalry for the mammoth local trout ("the Old ’Un") to Kitty Cartarette’s murderous designs upon her unwary and honorable husband, which provide the book with its momentum. The society in a state of grace is all too short-lived: Nurse Kettle (an equable but more humane descendant of Dickens’ Sarah Gamp) enjoys a quiet evening walk into a willow grove along the banks of the Chyne River, whereupon she hears a "cry of mourning, intolerably loud" and in the dusk light discovers Colonel Cartarette, the victim of his wife Kitty, a literal femme fatale (Ch. Three, 6). The plot of this work hinges on the notion of noblesse oblige which acts as a dominant ethical criterion in Marsh’s fictional universe: thus in Scales of Justice the rotund Lady Lacklander informs the doting Nurse: "You’re an Elizabethan, Kettle. You believe in degree. You’re a female Ulysees, old girl. But degree is dependent upon behaviour, I’d have you know" (Three, 3). In short, Lady Lacklander is rightly concerned about the problem of "shabby behaviour", and the Chief Constable (Sir James Punston) tells Alleyn that she runs Chyning and Swevenings - "For some reason they seem to like it. Survival of the feudal instinct you might think" (Ch. Four,3). In Chapter Twelve of the novel Lady Lacklander administers her final and most powerful rebuke to her oddball son, George, regarding his reckless "elephantine flirtation" with Kitty Cartarette (Twelve, 1), forthrightly scolding him for muddling his values - "You led a completely unscrupulous trollop to suppose that if she was a widow you’d marry her". The fact that such a foppish flirtation led to an unpremeditated act of murder reinforces the seriousness of George Lacklander’s dereliction of duty as a member of the gentry. (As an aside, many readers have quailed at the horror of the violent act which Colonel Cartarette suffered: "The Colonel’s temple had been broken as if his head had come under a waxworker’s hammer" [Ch. Four, 1]; he was whacked with a golf club then his assailant stabbed into his skull with a shooting-stick which crushed the poor man’s skull. When Marsh was writing this Gothic demise a scandalous case broke in Christchurch, involving the daughter of some of Marsh’s acquaintances at Canterbury University College. In the famous Hulme-Parker homicide of June 1954 two schoolgirls battered and bludgeoned the skull of one of their mothers about 45 times in a metropolitan park about two miles above Marsh’s home on the Cashmere Hills. Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker hid a half-brick in a stocking and stove in Mrs Parker’s skull, in a homicide which rocked conservative Christchurch. This incident, which helps to put the fiendish attack on Cartarette’s skull into context, has been made into a film, Heavenly Creatures, directed by Peter Jackson [Wingnut Productions, 1994]. Marsh assayed a similar linkage between female homicidal passion and extreme violence to a skull, and it was this unsettling conjunction which, as Inspector Fox explains to a local constable, has upset Alleyn: "It’s the kind of case he doesn’t fancy. Captial charge and a woman. Gets to thinking about what he calls first causes" [Ch.12,21].)
Marsh’s name was first linked competitively to Agatha Christie’s in the war years when her American publishers invented the slogan "She has Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie wondering if their crowns are on straight." In the years, after Christie’s death, Little, Brown adopted the words of Dilys Winn from a 1977 review to the effect that Marsh "writes better than Christie ever did; she is more civilized, knows something about the arts, and her characterizations have more life than Christie’s... "Since Dame Agatha’s death in 1976, it was inevitable that Christie-Marsh comparisons would be pressed further but what was probably overlooked is the fact that these Crime Queens knew one another personally. On one occasion the Lanes (of Penguin Books), who organized the Christie and Marsh Millions, invited the Mahlowans and Ngaio Marsh to dine and in 1960 both women appeared publicly together for a party at the Savoy Hotel, given for two academic writers of detective fiction, at which Prime Minister Macmillan was also present. Marsh disliked the slogan "It’s time to compare Agatha Christie to Marsh instead of the other way around", describing it as "silly" because Christie was too well established for a challenger in her own kind of writing and because she so clearly wrote in an entirely different way from Marsh, being the undisputed master of pure plot-driven puzzles. Marsh pointed out that Christie led the "classic" form and that neither should be compared with the other for reasons entirely connected with their individual approaches to the crime craft. For Marsh always started with people: "I usually start with only the sketchiest idea of the plot and it grows with the book, and that always means an awful lot of re-writing." Marsh worked to transform detective fiction into more rounded, three-dimensional portraiture, noting that she was always more interested in people ("The plot is a chore to me [and] I simply start by thinking of a group of people then I think, ‘Well now, which of these people is going to be capable of a crime of violence and under what given circumstances?" Therefore I have got to have a setting and a situation that would single out, as it were, this one character in a group").
Many of Marsh’s minor or occasional characters fit the original meaning of caricatura - that is, an overloaded representation with elements of the burlesque - in keeping with her conformity to the game dimension of detective fiction. Thus we meet Major Hamilton Sweet (When in Rome ) who has "a savage white moustache and looked like an improbable revival of an Edwardian warrior" and who snarled like a spoilt ornamental dog, or the elderly solicitors, the Rattisbons, dessicated Dickensian embodiments of their arcane craft. It is this, presumably, which led an anonymous reviewer to laud Marsh’s post-Dickensian melodramas: they come as a boon and a bessing to men,/The mystery stories from N. Marsh’s pen" (Sphere [London], January 1945). All this should remind us that Ngaio Marsh often wrote in a spirit of compassionate deflationary farce, describing her modus operandum, which did not change with new fashions in the genre, as being "in the line of the original detective story, where a crime is solved calmly." Marsh clearly subscribed to Thomas De Quincey’s mischievous view that "Murders have their little differences and shades of merit, as well statues, pictures, oratorios, intaglios, or what not."
Marsh gave considerable prominence to drug-trafficking or drug-taking as a cause or motive for murder in novels as diverse as Enter A Murder, Death in Ecstasy, A Wreath for Rivera, Spinsters in Jeopardy, Clutch of Constables, Last Ditch and Grave Mistake, and blackmail, theft and gambling also feature in the Marsh canon. Death by English ritual is central to Death of a Fool, occultism mixed with Shakespeariana imbues Death of a Peer and the mafiosi make an unwelcome appearance in Photo Finish. P.D. James, surveying the range of criminal focus in Marsh’s fiction, observed that this "gently-reared, fastidious lady, .s surprisingly ruthless and robust in her dispatch of victims" (p.2). Examples of this grotesquerie includes being hacked with a sheep hook, suffocation in a wool bale followed by crushing in a wool press (Died in the Wool), an impaling and a draught of etching acid (Artists in Crime), a deadly miasma of "Slaypest" weedkiller in an atomizer (False Scent), thalium placed in mill of magnesia, death in agony and the horrors of an exhumation (Final Curtain), a killer sliding down the banister of a country house, seizing a knife and stabbing his unsuspecting victim (A Man Lay Dead), a lethal village-hall piano (Overture to Death), a thrown spear (Black As He’s Painted), a strangulation (Singing in the Shrouds), a jeroboam descending swiftly from a great height, crushing a skull (Vintage Murder), a poisoned dart (Death at the Bar), a shooting stick being pushed through the stunned victim’s skull and pressed down (Scales of Justice), a meat skewer being thrust into the brain through the eye (Death of a Peer), and being boiled alive in a steaming mud pool (Colour Scheme). Earl Bargainnier recalls "the victim’s defenestration after being hit with an iron poker in Tied Up In Tinsel, or the sleeping pi1ls being forced into the suffocated victim’s mouth in Grave Mistake", as late examples of Marsh’s Gothicism (10 Women of Mystery. p.97). As a New Zealand journalist wryly observed "rarely does Ngaio Marsh resort to bang bang you’re dead" Bargainner helps explain what he calls Marsh’s "penchant for such bizarre, even outlandish methods of murder", in terms 0f her belief that the single act of violence that generates the plot dynamic must be striking and original" so that "her characters will be shocked, frightened, puzzled and utterly unable to stop talking about it until Alleyn provides the final explanation’ (ibid., p.98).
It is a classic Golden age convention that neither the victim nor the villain can be sympathetic characters for readers and, again Earl Bargainnier has written perceptively about Marsh’s application of this principle. He notes that her victims "are either unlikeable - philanderers rich and disagreeable elderly people, bitchy or neurotic women, blackmailers, etc. - or unknown, so that the reader feels nothing when they die, the major exceptions being Death in a White Tie and Death at the Bar (p.96). Bargainnier observes that Marsh’s murderers are "a varied lot", comprising six female killers and two murderous duos -- the rest being males acting on their own. Four of the women are middle-aged and "county", wishing to preserve their status, while the other two are beautiful young women who wish to marry wealth and position, one even killing her father to enable her to do so. With the exception of two spies and six crooks, three of whom have "respectable" covers, Marsh’s murderers are amateurs. Their motives are most often greed or the desire to protect themselves from ruin. However, [four] are insane, and there are single examples of murder as the result of sudden anger, of religious mania, and even of a perverted kind of pity. The most murderous profession in Marsh’s fiction is medicine, five murders are committed by doctors, no other profession comes close - only two are committed by actors (pp. 96-97).
Notwithstanding all this, it seems clear that Marsh, due to her genteel and sheltered upbringing, knew she could not get an authentic grasp of the rather raw contours of the New Zealand experience at that time and, wishing to impress the Rhodes entourage, chose to write in a genre that is both itself genteel in its values and social assumptions. Knowing that her vision of life was rather circumscribed, Marsh therefore chose to work within a circumscribed literary form and, as she gained in confidence with that form, she gingered it up. As H. Douglas Thomson wrote of the roman policier, "what is the detective story if not a grown-up nonsense rather proud of its education and logic?" (Masters of Mystery ). A classic instance of Marsh’s engaging whimsicality as a novelist of manners is to be found in an off-hand comment which she made in 1949: "I always make a point of keeping the most pleasant-sounding name for the murderer. As he or she is bound to come to an unpleasant end, it seems the very least the author can do" (Australian Women’s Weekly. 29 January 1949, p.9).
Susan Howatch has praised Marsh as "an elegant, disciplined writer" possessed
of acute "outsider’s insights into the heart of a vanished social world." In
penetrating that largely ‘upper-crust’ world, Marsh the colonial used her wellheeled
sleuth, Roderick Alleyn, who possessed what Colin Watson calls the detective
hero’s "implicit instrumentality in restoring the rule of right over wrong" (Snobbery
with Violence, p.192). Alleyn also clearly conformed to Watson’s notion of
the great detective being "traditionally a somewhat priestly figure, utterly
reliable, incorruptible and socially unsmirched" (p.211). Murder may, in detective literature, be
regarded as "a sort of inexcusable faux pas" (Death in a White Tie,
Ch.XV), and Alleyn remarks ironically that it is indubitably "a crime in bad
taste" (Killer Dolphin. Ch.8) and that "Murder is beastly. Unfortunately
it’s not unreal" (Hand in Glove, Ch. 4). There is a memorable moment during
the Second World War when Alleyn remarks to Inspector Fox:
"Does it seem odd to you, Fox, that we should be here so solemnly tracking down one squalid little murderer, so laboriously using our methods to peer into two deaths, while over our heads are stretched legions of guns? It’s as if we stood ci-i the edge of a crackling landside, swatting flies."
"It’s our job."
"And will continue to be so. But to hang someone - now! My God, Fox, it’s almost funny" Death and the Dancing Footman. Ch. XVI).
Alleyn has indeed vented much moral indignation over the death penalty, reflecting the fact that Ngaio Marsh became very strongly opposed to the practice after reading Gerald Gardiner’s book, Capital Punishment as a Deterrent (Gollancz, 1956), in which the noted Q.C. advanced the thesis that while "there are a good many things to be said against capital punishment, the real point is that there is nothing whatever to be said for it" (p.117). Such swirling cross-currents of ethical argumentation are a noteworthy feature of Marsh’s novels, focused upon Alleyn’s rigorously self-analytical and strongly conscientized moral posture, for murder - as Alleyn often states - is the ultimate act of deviance, the greatest social enormity being to destroy a fellow human being. Auden well noted that execution "is the act of atonement by which the murderer is forgiven by society" and that "in a detective story the murderer must have no future."
W.H. Auden once observed that in the Golden Age detective fiction the victim has "to involve everybody in suspicion, which requires that he be a bad character." Sympathetic victims do exist in the Marsh canon (William Compline [Death and the Dancing Footman, Henry Jobbins Killer Dolphin], Mrs Rickerby-Carrick [Clutch of Constables], Alfred Meyer Vintage Murder and Dennis the steward [Singing in the Shrouds], but the majority of her victims are objectionable in one degree or another - such as Uncle Gabriel (Death of a Peer), Iris Campanula (Overture to Death), Carlos Rivera (A Wreath for Rivera), Maurice Questing (Colour Scheme), Flossie Rubrick (Died in the Wool), Mary Bellamy (False Scent) and Isabella Sommita (Photo Finish). The murderer cannot, obviously, be too markedly objectionable in a "whodunnit" and S.S. Van Dine argued that there should only be one killer: "the entire indignation of the reader must be be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature." (Whenever Marsh has two accomplices, there is always one psychopathic mastermind, such as Tinkerton [Death of a Peer] or Cressida Tottenham [Tied Up In Tinsel].) Furthermore, William Aydelotte has noted that for many victims, "death is good riddance" and many of Marsh’s innocents, like Sybil Foster, Hazel Rickerby-Carrick and Maurice Questing, are not people with whom we would want to identify (whilst others such as Jobbins and Dennis are Cockney types without any social Standing, which may testify to a certain amount of class-based callousness in the classical formula).
But lest we blithely consign Marsh as a writer inseparably wedded to criminal literature, attention should be paid to short stories such as "Moonshine" which Marsh wrote for The Sun (then the evening newspaper in her home city) as a young adult. It furnishes early evidence of remarkable literary talent of the kind which led Mrs Marsh to encourage Ngaio to read the short stories of Katherine Mansfield and which, in turn, led her aspiring daughter to write to her mother’s great delight when they were domiciled together in London in the early ‘thirties. It seems clear that Mansfield was an important early mentor for the young Ngaio Marsh. The proletarian New Zealand author Frank Sargeson commented to John Lehmann in 1939 about what he saw as KM’s baleful influence upon the development of New Zealand fiction: "Our Kathie has had a bad influence on people who try to write here", he wrote. "Kathie, who should be have been born in England and only come out here on comfortably conducted tours, has led practically everyone down the garden path." "Moonshine" is without doubt a Mansfieldian evocation of an Antipodean childhood, and it would be no great exaggeration to claim it as a primitive tale of detection/discovery on the part of a robustly inquisitive, intelligent, romantic and determined little girl (a fitting analog for the youthful Marsh). With "Moonshine" - a touching story about a child’s discovery that Father Christmas is a mythical figure - Marsh introduced her lifelong device of framing her narratives with punning titles: in this case, on the prosaic level, the title connotes the placement of Christmas parcels by young Janey’s father while she watches in the moonlight, while on the metaphorical level it conveys the general idea that the Santa Claus business is bogus. The Christmas festival always held a special place of ritual high regard in the small Marsh household and it informed a number of Marsh’s more mature works, modelled upon the macabre juxtaposition of the Yuletide season and murder adumbrated in Dickens' final, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), such as her novelette "Murder at Christmas" (The Grand Magazine, 1934) and the novel Tied Up In Tinsel (1972). Marsh also used Christmas motifs in her juvenile folk play The Christmas Tree (1962), with its strongly ritualized flavour, and in her operetta A Unicorn for Christmas (1962). "Moonshine" is set on the Cashmere Hills one Christmas Eve, and it parallels Marsh’s account of her own Yuletide experiences given in Black Beech and Honeydew except for one detail: that Ngaio was an only child whereas Janey has an older and more wordly-wise brother. The story remains, nonetheless, heavily charged with an autobiographical resonance. For instance, Janey - like Ngaio - slept in summertime on a verandah listening to boys letting off fireworks down on "the flat" (Christchurch city). And like the young Ngaio, Janey made use of a "stumpy notebook" in which to record "the sort of things she was ashamed to put in schoolroom compositions." This makes "Moonshine" something of an encoded literary work, for as one of Marsh’s earliest published stories it is tantalizing in this reference to a small girl who nurses the urge to write, reminding us of Ngaio Marsh’s subjective analysis book which she described as "my first attempt at descriptive writing."
What is immediately striking about this work is the pronounced Englishness of its tone (seen, for example, in the Boys’ Own utterances of Gerald, the brother fresh home from boarding school), but far more important is the artfully simple but penetrating depiction of the turbulent emotions of childhood and the acquisition of adult knowledge when Jane and her father tenderly discuss the rationale for his innocent deception. When confronted with such evidence of unusual literary promise we may well ask why Marsh later chose to restrict her energies to the exigencies of bestselling crime fiction. Jessica Mann is surely correct in drawing attention to the way in which Ngaio Marsh hid her innermost personality behind a mask, for what makes a modest fiction like "Moonshine" live is the fact that in it Marsh exposed something of herself (albeit very obliquely). Her choice of a literary career as crime novelist was not such an odd one, however, if we remember that Marsh read the works of Poe and Conan Doyle as a young child, that she grew up in a markedly Anglocentric city and that her education was as English as Antipodean conditions would allow.
This English inflection can best be seen in Marsh’s urbane and almost Edwardian tale of high society revenge, "The Cupid Mirror" (1972), in which a stylish aristocrat has decided - on strict ethical grounds also to cover up an act of poisoning which he had observed in a classy London restaurant akin to the Café Royal. This spirit can be discerned in another of Marsh’s early short stories, "The Figure Quoted" (first published in Christchurch’s The Sun in December 1927). Marsh did feel herself to be the victim of an indifference by many New Zealanders to her literary output and, from the intelligentsia there, an inverted academic snobbery amounting to amused contempt which she felt more strongly than she ever publicly admitted. When her autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, was published a New Zealand reviewer, Dennis McEldowney, forthrightly opined: "It has never seemed to me... that Ngaio Marsh was a potential novelist wasting herself on detective stories. She has not been either passionate enough or detached enough" (Landfall 79 , p.296), which is a remarkably arrogant and dismissive judgement, in or out of context. "The Figure Quoted" is a comic tale about a bored but clearly lecherous auctioneer coping poorly with the return of repressed erotic fantasies and it recalls the judgement of a painter friend of Marsh’s, who declared her to be a very lively customer, for this story strikes a characteristic Marshean note of mystery mixed with playful whimsy: an exercise in levity and ironic understatement so typical of English literary discourse. The story was republished in the first collection of short stories written by New Zealanders (New Zealand Short Stories [London, 1930] ), whose editor, O.N. Gillespie, conceded that the volume "may prove disappointing because the stories, particularly by contrast with those from Australia, lack any national outlook or distinctive atmosphere." Gillespie reminded his readers that up until that time "one purpose...dominated" New Zealanders: "They sought, and still seek, to refashion in [their] islands the homeland they had left" ("Preface", p.v). It is, then, surely hardly surprising that Marsh wrote a good deal as an English farceuse, producing fictions dealing with the classic theme of appearance and reality in the spirit of her early mentors, E.M. Forster and Walter de la Mare. This early exercise in the fantasy-absurd is a quirky and successful satire on the puritanism and philistine lack of imagination then rather common among mainstream New Zealanders, focused on the figure of Mr Batey as he prepares to auction a garden ornament and fantasizes a real-life naked nymph materializing in his show-room (rather as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, but more like the seductive Eve apparition who floats in and out of the Whitehall War Office in Dennis Potter’s Lipstick on Your Collar ). Marsh brilliantly satirizes the mistrust of imagination of her compatriots with Batey’s gathering incomprehension and mounting embarrasment as he struggles to reconcile this unexpected juxtaposition of the desired but denied phantasm and the quotidian surroundings in which he is forced to eke out a living, and "The Figure Quoted" is a clear harbinger of Marsh’s later facility with romances of reason inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. While Marsh later wrote three Alleyn mysteries in the short story form ("Murder at Christmas", later retitled "Death on the Air" , "I Can Find My Way Out"  and "Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery" ), notice also ought to be taken of two New Zealand short stories with a "criminal" twist - but where Alleyn makes no appearance - which were written late in Marsh’s career.
"A Fool About
Money" (1974) is a short and psychologically subtle vignette about the rail
journey of a newly-arrived English immigrant and of the almost macabre
misadventure she encounters en route between Ashburton and Dunedin (two
cities along the coast of the South Island of New Zealand). Although the
descriptive touches are sparely adminstered ( as with the admirable
description of Alleyn’s train journey down the Main Trunk Line of the North
Island to "Middleton", a mythical town near Taihape (Vintage Murder,
Ch.1), here the author exactly conveys the sensations of travel:
In the world outside, plains and mountains performed a grandiose kind of measure and telegraph wires leaped and looped with frantic precision.
Marsh includes real details, such as the regular "comfort stops" and attendant assaults on the catering facilities in New Zealand railway stations of yore, but there are no ingratiating comparisons between the accents and behaviour of Hersey Hancock and Mrs Fortescue, the New Zealander. The mounting crescendo and tense atmosphere of mutual suspicion and feminine mistrust is very effectively suggested, but the story ends on a note of delightful irony which - in its climax - celebrates the compactness of New Zealand social life.
"Morepork" (1978), Marsh’s fifth and final crime novelet was (like "Moonshine") to some extent what T.S. Eliot called an "objective correlative" for Ngaio Marsh, for as with the famous passage in Death of a Peer (1940) about Roberta Grey’s arrival in London, there is a considerable weight of personal recollection in it. "Morepork" is reminiscent of Marsh’s writings about her own summer holidays in the foothills of the Southern Alps and it is a superbly constructed tale, whose highlights are derived from the richly textured sense of locale which Marsh conveys. It was a work commissioned by Julian Symons as part of a final fling Golden Age detective anthology, Verdict of Thirteen (1978), by Detection Club authors in which the classic closed setting with a jury was a mandatory element. Marsh recycles the illicit love affair and Oedipal anxieties of a young New Zealand male to generate the emotional tension on a camping excursion which ends in a suspicious death. Yet here, though without Roderick Alleyn, Marsh cannot solve the mystery without an Englishman in the person of Miles Curtis-Vane, the one Briton in a party of Kiwi deer-stalkers and whose clothes, although "well-worn, had a distinctive look which they would have retained if they had been rags." Curtis-Vane, a Jaeger’s or Harrods customer, stands a breed apart from the sturdy New Zealanders, and when the leading lady (Susan Bridgeman) arrives on the scene after learning that her estranged husband has died after falling off a jerry-built bridge into the treacherous Wainui (a snow-fed river), like her son Clive she instinctively settles for the English barrister to render general thanks to the group who recovered the body.
The setting is pure Glentui (an area Marsh used to camp in): with the native bellbirds, tuis, the rushing river, the black beech and beech-bush, and the native wood-pigeon (kereru) which "flops" (a perfect description) on the ridge-pole of Caley Bridgeman’s tent. At the end of this fiendishly ingenious plot we learn that the Maori (the indigenes of New Zealand) regard the morepork, in the recorded words of the deceased, as "a harbinger of death." A major source of trouble is that these tense campers are totally out of step with this near paradisal environment: while Marsh could write glowingly of her own father, that he was "magnificent" when camping and "seemed to give off a glow of profound satisfaction", the characters in "Morepork", on the contrary, harbour subterranean passions or resentments: from the lovers Solomon Gosse and Susan Bridgeman to the Oedipal anxieties of Clive Grey and the ruction between David Wingate and Caley Bridgeman. These characters are infiltrators, and violence is the inevitable manifestation of their intense jealousies and hatreds. The murderers, Gosse and the wayward Mrs. Bridgeman, over-reach the themselves and the solution to the mystery of Caley’s demise hinges (as it did in Marsh’s first novelet "Death on the Air" ) on a piece of technical apparatus. These illicit lovers speak their murderous intent in the bush away from the other campers, but not away - alas for them - from the range of Caley Bridgeman’s highly sensitive parabolic microphone.
Marsh’s extensive knowledge and experience of theatrical milieux served her well in the scenic construction and brisk dialogue of her exercises in roguery and detection. She once expanded on her love of theater settings for her fiction: "Theater people belong comfortably to detective fiction. They’re larger than life. They dramatize everything; it’s their business to do so." Indeed, detective novels consist not so much of a series of events as of "scenes", and like plays they have to be rigorously economical in their execution. Also, like stage drama, detective stories are based on linear and continuous plots. The dramatic parallels consist of: (i) elaboration of plot after the introduction of the key dramatis personae (ii) incidental characters may populate and complicate the action for added variety and impact; (iii) the clash of personalities and hidden tensions find an outlet in the classical catastrophe (here, the dramatic climax of murder); (iv) additional drama ensues as the investigation proceeds and meets with inevitable obstacles and resistance; and (v) there follows a standard resolution and denouement.
Jane Hipolito has observed that the "basis of Alleyn’s enduring appeal and the secret of Ngaio Marsh’s continuing success is a superb sense of style... which seems directly informed by her lifelong attention to literature, art and especially the theater" (p.233, Mystery and Detection Annual 1972). Indeed Hipolito astutely noted that for Marsh murder "is essentially histrionics", and that most of her novels are "absolutely concentric" in their design so that "the large drama, the plot of the entire book, is mirrored and concentrated by the smaller, interior drama staged by the characters, much as the play-within-a-play of Hamlet strengthens that work" (ibid., p. 234). Marsh explicitly worked her practical understanding of the live theatre into her craft in the following works: Enter a Murderer (1935), Vintage Murder (1937), "I Can Find My Way Out" (1946), Final Curtain (1947), Killer Dolphin (1966), Tied Up In Tinsel (1972; and Light Thickens (1982). Hipolito suggests usefully that "The reason for Alleyn’s invariable detection of the criminal has always been his dramatic knack of interpreting character" (p. 235). Like his creator, Roderick Alleyn believes that we all live in what a Thomas Love Peacock character termed "this terrestrial theatre" (Headlong Hall , Ch. III).
conception of the criminal was derived from her own peculiar sense of the
theater and the theatricality of life and its stabilizing rituals. Martin
Esslin has referred to Shakespeare’s Henry V as the English "national
play which comes nearest to a ritual reaffirmation of English nationhood" and
it is highly significant that this was the last full-scale play that Dame Ngaio
produced (to open the theater in the Christchurch Town Hall in 1972), for Marsh
asserted that the English are "a very ritualistically gifted nation" and that
they have an extraordinarily right sense of ritual. It is the lack of such
rituals in New Zealand and their prevalence and centrality in English life
which helps to account for why most of Marsh’s novels have British (and largely
English) settings. W.H. Auden once observed that:
The detective story writer is... wise to choose a society with an elaborate ritual and to describe this in detail.... The murderer uses his knowledge of the ritual to commit the crime and can be caught only by someone who acquires an equal or superior familiarity with it.
Marsh has indeed used this conceit: from the specialized ritual of the jazz group (A Wreath for Rivera), the ritual over the Old ’Un (Scales of Justice), the operating theater routine (The Nursing Home Murder), the use of a parish concert with its preordained "order of service" (Overture to Death), the Hamlet-like graveyard ritual in Grave Mistake, the pistol shot at a climax in the Unicorn Theater play (Enter a Murderer), the deathly, preplanned arrival of a weighty jeroboam at on-stage birthday party (Vintage Murder), the decapitation in a production of Macbeth (Light Thickens) and, above all, the shared cultic experiences which provide suitable occasions for ritualized murders which are central to Death in Ecstasy, Spinsters in Jeopardy, Death of a Fool and Tied up in Tinsel. As the New Zealand critic Joan Stevens usefully observed, all Marsh’s stories are theatrical - "Their dialogue moves with an actor’s sense of reaction and timing, the scenes are set with a producer’s care for details of significant movement, and there are frequent quotations from dramatic literature" in them.
heightened sense of theatricality strongly inflects Marsh’s portraiture of
Roderick Alleyn: when he was first in New Zealand Alleyn recognized in himself
"a kind of nostalgia, a feeling of intense sympathy and kinship with the stage"
(Vintage Murder, Ch. XVII). He also asked himself: "Is my mere presence
in the stalls a cue for homicide?" (Vintage Murder, Ch.X). It is
explained years later in Killer Dolphin (1966):
Alleyn was not altogether unused to the theatrical scene or to theatrical people. He had been concerned in four police investigations in which actors had played - and ‘played" had been the operative word - leading roles. As a result of these cases he was sardonically regarded at the Yard as something of an expert on the species (Ch.5).
Commissioner of Police once remarked to Alleyn: "You are the man for the job: what
with your theatrical past and your dotage on the Bard". Alleyn, however, should
not be considered the only thespian in the Marsh novels: on the contrary, there
is a critical congruence of the detective and the criminal as actors - those who seem but may not
k~ what they project. In this
perspective (a further legacy of Marsh’s admiration of Pirandello) crime and
its investigation are both conceived as games, albeit games in deadly earnest.
The American scholar Marilyn Rye has commented on Marsh’s extensive use of
"theatrical metaphors" in her fiction, noting that Alleyn often acts as an
audience for criminal performances: "Marsh’s detective is always aware of the
construction of crime as an aesthetic act". Alleyn thinks very frequently of Hamlet,
perhaps his favourite Shakespearean play. When eaves-dropping on one occasion
he observed wryly to Inspector Fox, "next stop, with Polonius behind the arras
in a bedroom" (False Scent, Ch. VI), and when asked to give advice by
one Miss Meade, Alleyn thinks of himself as "a mature Hamlet" (Killer
Dolphin. Ch.9). Indeed, right at the commencement of Alleyn’s fictional
appearance he chided a journalist friend for his "theatricality" (Man Lay
Dead, Ch. IV), and when proposing to reconstruct the stunt" and the "last
act" of the drama (ibid.. Ch. XV). In Marsh’s thirtieth novel, Grave
Mistake (1978), Sybil Foster’s gardener, with the ironic name Gardener (the
first possible hint of his falsity), is an exemplary specimen of the histrionic
homicide. Alleyn tells Verity Preston that Gardener had long cultivated his air
of "the pawky Scot" and that "By and large" he was "a loss to the stage. I can
see him stealing the show in a superior soap" (Ch. IX). Gardener over-reached
himself with his synthetic Scots act, was uncovered by a master
actor-detective, and well illustrated Emerson’s maxim that "Society is a masked
ball, where every one hides his real character, and reveals it by hiding". This
could well serve as a summation of Ngaio Marsh’s conspicuously theatrical
vision and for much of her own life-conduct as well. A recurrent feature in her
fiction was the notion of murder a performance event, shown in the classic
deaths of Surbonadier (Enter a Murderer), Rivera (A Wreath for
Rivera), William Andersen (Death of a Fool) and Dougal McDougall (Light
Thickens). As a rational empiricist, Marsh often used "offbeat" cults and
ideologies as sites of fictional murder (shown in occult reference, drugs
cults, exotic village rituals [Death of a Fool and Dead Water]
and in a novel with an explicitly Mithraic subtext [When in Rome]).
These practices demonstrate the fact that Golden Age detective fiction eschewed
sordid realism and carefully aestheticized violence. Notwithstanding this,
Ngaio Marsh was always a painstaking craftswoman whose meticulous attention to
detail and ceaseless striving for procedural accuracy resulted in Sir Harold
Scott (the Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police from 1945-53) once
sending her a message to the effect that she had "never put a foot wrong" in
her accounts of police investigation. This concern for precision is evident in
the descriptions of her victims, which are usually rendered with the sober
factuality of a mortician. In one case the ingestion of cyanide in a
Her face twisted into an appalling grimace. Her body twitched violently. She pitched forward like an enormous doll, jerked twice and then was still... . The eyes, wide open and protuberant stared... . At the corners of the mouth were traces of a rimy spume. The mouth itself was set, with the teeth clenched and the lips drawn back in a rigid circle... . She may have been in a state of ecstasy but she was undoubtedly dead (Death in Ecstasy. Ch. II & III).
In another case,
a bedraggled corpse stuck in an English lock is discovered staring dolefully
Hazel Rickerby-Carrick’s face, idiotically, looked up: not at Troy, not at anything. Her mouth, drawn into an outlandish rictus, grinned through discoloured froth. She bobbed and bumped against the starboard side. And what terrible disaster had corrupted her riverweed hair and distended her blown cheeks? (Clutch of Constables, Ch. 5).
In addition, Marsh used her varied experience as an art student, a touring company actress, as co-proprietor of an interior decorating shop (which purveyed home-made lampshades, firescreens, breakfast trays, dining mats, powder bowls and small items of furniture of a modish kind) and as a producer of vaudeville, light pantomimes and revues as well as of orthodox drama; as she once asserted, "all that has been grist to my mill". But she was also a highly meticulous student of criminology, medical toxicology and legal procedure. Over the years Marsh amassed library of reference books on medical jurisprudence, toxicology, police law, pathology, notable trials and Continental criminology. Pride of place in that collection of specialist arcana was taken by Dr. Hans Gross’ Criminal Investigation: A Practical Textbook, authored by a Professor of Criminology in the University of Prague (1934, edited by John and J. Collyer Adam), along with Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence (1934), C.C.H. Moriarty’s Police Law (1937) and Police Procedure and Administration (1937), C.S. Kenny’s Outlines of Criminal Law (1936), Christopher Hollis’ The Homicide Act (1964), L.E.S. Eizenlohr’s International Narcotics Control (1934), Henry Rhodes’ Clues and Crime (1933) and The Criminals We Deserve (1937), F. Wensley’s Forty Years of Scotland Yard (1931), Söderman and O’Connell’s Modern Criminal Investigation (1935; rev. 1938) Paul Kirk’s Crime Investigation (1953), Peter Laurie’s Scotland Yard (1970), F.T. Giles’ The Criminal Law (1954), Charles Mercier’s Crime and Criminals (1918), Alvin Moscow’s Merchants of Heroin (1968), John Laurence’s Extraordinary Crimes (n.d), E.W. Caryl Thomas’ A Synopsis of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology (1933) and George Dilnot’s Man Hunters (1938) and The Real Detective (1933) to name but a few of the titles still to be found in the Ngaio Marsh House. In addition, Marsh occasionally subscribed to the journal The Criminologist (London).
Two instances of Ngaio Marsh’s use of exotic reference material in constructing tales of detection are instructive and interesting. Marsh was a member of The English Folk Dance and Song Society and her personal library contains copies of the journal English Dance and Song and a number of books including work by Violet Alford. In fashioning the fictive solstice Mardian Morris Dance of the Five Sons for Death of a Fool (later published in the UK as Off With His Head ), Marsh expressed indebtedness to Douglas Kennedy’s England’s Dances (1949) and Violet Alford’s Introduction to English Folklore (1952). Alford’s book starts with a statement which is expressive of the source of Marsh’s interest: "England is rich in traditional dances and drama, and the dances and drama are rich in vestiges, and a good deal more than vestiges, of long-past beliefs and doings." (Ronald Hutton’s new study The Stations of the Sun: A history of the ritual year in Britain [OUP, 1996], critically examines such claims.) Another source of strong appeal to Marsh, who while writing Death of a Fool was preparing to stage her only production of King Lear [August 1956], would be the linkages in King Lear with ancient ritual: when, for instance, Edgar refers to Old Hoppedance crying hunger pangs in his belly "for two white herrings" (Act III, VI’, 31-32), he may have been alluding to the Revesby Play and its associated notion of parricide. In fact the Lear connection is insisted on in Fool with Dr. Otterly’s excited discovery that Lear is the "stupendous blossoming" of Sir James Frazer’s theme of "The King of the Wood, the Green Man, The, Fool, The Old Man Persecuted by his Young" (Ch. Two, II). Alleyn perceives that the South Mardian ritual Death and Resurrection of the Fool (First and Second Dances) ties up with "the old mystery of sacrifice" with "the promise of renewal behind it" (Ch. Six, II). Alleyn later asks Otterly if the concept of the ritual dance derives from Frazer’s thematic of the King of the Sacred Grove. The Doctor replies, "Certainly. And the Dionysian play about the Titans who killed their old man" (Ch. Seven, I). The point, of course, is that in this present instance one slightly demented and frustrated son literally does kill his old man. Superintendent Carey describes old William Andersen’s corpse as "like a kind of doll that the head had come off. There was the body, sort of doubled up, and there was the head two feet away, grinning, which was right nasty... "(Ch.Five, I). Camilla Campion, a young trainee actress visiting the Andersens, says that the whole thing is "like something out of Webster or Marlow: horror-plus" (Ch. Six, I) and Alleyn tells Fox, "This case smacks of the Elizabethan. And I don’t altogether mean Hamlet or Lear.... But those earlier plays of violence when people kill each other in sort of quintessence of spleen and other people cheer each other up by saying things like: ‘And now, my lord, to leave these doleful dumps" (Ch. Eleven. III). Predictably, Alleyn finds the creator of this revenge-tragedy homicide through a dramatic reconstruction of the solstice ceremony.
Marsh chose to weave another strand of arcane English lore into her tenth novel, Death of a Peer (UK title: Surfeit of Lampreys ) by mixing her beloved Ingoldsby Legends (1840) with a passage in The Malleus Maleficarum (or The Hammer of Witches), first printed in 1486. Marsh was attracted (probably in her youth) by "The Nurse’s Story (The Hand of Glory ) " which recounted how a gentry household were all frozen into a very deep slumber by the agency of the Dead Man’s Spell ("the spell of the Dead Man’s hand") while nefarious acts of homicide and theft took place. The three malefactors were thus aided by a witch who mixed a severed hand with five locks of hair and the grease and fat of a tom-cat, creating the spell which quelled the household and enabled them to murder the squire of Tappington Hall. ("And there, on the floor, drenched in gore,/A ghastly corpse lies exposed to the view,/Carotid and jugular both cut through!")
Checking her own copy of the Malleus, the Compendium Maleficarum (collected by Brother Francesco Maria Guazzo in Milan, 1608), edited with notes by Montague Summers (London: John Rodker, 1927), Ngaio located the chapter "Of Soporific Spells" in which the Church Fathers noted ways in which sorcerers and witches put others to sleep "by means of potions or evil incantations or some secret rites", using natural soporific drugs (e.g. hemlock, mandragora, darnel, nightshade and poppy), so that they could cut off limbs (e.g. the hand) or conduct other nefarious activities upon victims. The Compendium authors refer to witches penetrating into houses, setting fire to the feet and hands of corpses to induce sleep in their victims (a sleep which went by the name of iniecta somni nebula), then possibly pouring poison down their throats, etc. The Compendium recorded a story akin to "The Hand of Glory" in Liege (in a town called Hugo), whereupon two warlocks used the severed hand of a dead man to subdue everyone in an inn into sleep in order to engage in a large heist. Marsh utilized elements of such legends in Death of a Peer, wherein the devouring interest in black magic of Violet, Marchioness of Wutherwood and Rune, is cynically exploited by her cash-strapped serving maid, the ill-named Miss Grace Tinkerton.
The dowager has referred, cryptically, to the cases of Marguerite Loundman (Luondman) of Gebweiler and of Anna Ruffa (Rouer) of Douzy, two medieval witches (Ch. 12, III), and Alleyn later relates this material to the Compendium. Luondman attempted to poison a man but he awoke before she had anointed him with an unguent and Rouer went to bewitch a zealous witch-hunter. Both were notably unsuccessful in their endeavours. Ahleyn comes to believe that the Marquis’ killer has patterned the murder around the severed hand parallel, so that someone very familiar with occult lore has convinced Lady Wutherwood that her husband was destroyed by a demon (with, it transpires, Tinkerton being the Little Master, or familiar spirit, of that enterprise). The Dickensian solicitor, Mr Rattisbon, informs Alleyn of an earlier incident in which Lady Wutherwood threatened her husband with a demonic demise and was also in the possession of a voodoo doll (Ch. 17, 111).
Marsh has ingeniously mixed two murders with several rather recondite literary elements into a rich and intriguing composite comprising medieval lore and Shakespeariana from Macbeth. Miss Tinkerton has exploited the lunacy and instability of her employer but may also have acted in her mistress’ best interest (as Lord Wutherwood was about to cut his wife out of his will just before he was killed), with the prospect of enhancing her own. Being a Lady Macbeth (with echoes of Mrs Danvers in du Maurier’s Rebecca in her controlling manner), Tinkerton has convinced the chauffeur (William Giggle) to kill his employer, thereby immediately acquiring a small property and a handsome legacy of £300 per annum which she will share in, being romantically involved with Giggle. This is a playful inversion of the Macbeth plot, in which the retainers of the lordly ones are guilty. There is an additional echo when Tinkerton drugs the nurse attending Lady Wutherwood (just as Lady Macbeth framed King Duncan’s grooms by incapacitating them) so that "night’s black agents [Tinkerton and her lady] to their prey [can] rouse". This resonant inter-textuality greatly enriches Marsh’s text and illustrates how erudition can add depth to detective fiction, especially in rounding out the motives and character of the guilty one: we see how Tinkerton has enslaved her employer to morphine and preyed on Lady Wutherwood’s credulity about occultism (being persuaded by the cunning lady’s maid to cut off her late husband’s hand with a stock-bone saw in order to test the claims of witches). Tinkerton has tried to frame the Lampreys for the murder of Lord Wutherwood and then attempted to frame Lady Wutherwood for the murder of Bill Giggle, which she herself committed. Although of necessity retrospective, it is a chilling portrait of a ruthless woman killer.
In an important
essay entitled "The Present Status of the Mystery Story" (The London Mercury.
November 1930) Dorothy L. Sayers provided a robust defence of the form,
reminding the literati that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is "set like a
sign-post to show how far blood-and-thunder may go on the road to Parnassus",
and it seems not too far-fetched to imagine Ngaio Marsh reading this
clarion-call to construct literary detective fictions in line with Sayers’
argument (which Marsh later adopted when discussing the form in her
autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew) that "within the necessary
restriction of its form, it is as capable of its own proper greatness as a
sonnet within the restrictions of octave and sestet." Bearing in mind Marsh’s
personal credo that "All good detective novels begin in Baker Street" and HRF Keating’s discussion of
Sherlock Holmes as a man of quintessential English rationality and decency, it
was entirely fitting that Marsh’s thirty-second and final detective novel, Light
Thickens, married the Holmesian legacy and the robust Elizabethan ethos of
her "lifelong friend and lover William Shakespeare" (in the words of Elric
Hooper, one of Marsh’s directorial protégés). For as A.L. Rowse noted in
1991, Shakespeare "has the way of absolutely piercing right through your heart.
The whole of life is in him, really". If we ally this claim (with which Marsh
would have concurred totally) with Charles and Mary Lamb’s discussion of the
virtues embodied in the Bard’s plays ("enrichers of fancy... , a withdrawing from all
selfish and mercenary thoughts... to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity [and]
humanity" [Tales from Shakespeare,  we can better
appreciate the sense of aesthetic and ethical completion to her oeuvre
in the final pages of Light Thickens, the very last prose which Dame
Ngaio penned for publication. Chief Superintendent Alleyn has discovered that
the demented swordsman, Gaston Sears, killed the actor playing Macbeth (Sir
Dougal Macdougal) with a real claidheamhmor. During the course of his
inquiries Sears has chosen to present the producer, Peregrine Jay with two wooden
swords and a letter for the young Fleance, the boy-actor William Smith. Jay is
in a quandary with this gift from a homicide and asks Alleyn:
"Shall I give then to the boy? And the letter?" After a long pause, Alleyn said:
"I don’t know William. If he is a sensible boy and respects the tools of his trade - yes I think you should" (Ch. 9, IV).
And so Dame Ngaio’s oeuvre ends on a note of humane affirmation, delivered by her master detective: a true master of tolerant, wise humanity who knows that this gesture is an act of redemption for Sears which should not be spurned, inasmuch as Alleyn believes - in keeping with Marsh’s own liberalism - that no human being is ultimately beyond the scope of redemption. It is a quiet moment, a delicate movement before final stasis, and an entirely fitting one for this writer of acute sensibility and humanity to close out a long and honourable career in ethical story-telling.
Reviewing Final Curtain in 1947, "Samuel Marchbanks" (the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies) lauded Marsh as "the New Zealander upon whom the mantle of Dorothy Sayers appears to have fallen". Earl Bargainnier has provided a crisp summation of Marsh’s achievements as a late Golden Age novelist whose "own acutely clear eyed and sensitive nature have enabled her to incorporate elements of the novel of manners, of romance, of satire, of character and of her personal interests to create a distinctly individual body of work" (Ten Women of Mystery. p. 102). After Marsh’s death in February 1982 The Times of London declared that she "was one of those writers who during the 1930’s raised the detective novel to a high level of literary art". At the same time the noted New Zealand playwright Bruce Mason wrote that her novels "were finely crafted, richly erudite displays, yet [Marsh] never insisted on her virtuosity, letting one find it for oneself." She would have fully assented to Evelyn Waugh’s view that, "Properly understood style is not a seductive decoration added to a functional structure, it is of the essence of a work of art." For the private and fictional worlds of Ngaio Marsh were above all elegant, quietist and refined - generating literary heterocosms in which aesthetic discrimination was a major value, for she was natural aristocrat - a "queen of the spirit" in Bruce Mason’s words - who was taught from the cradle to abhor all crudeness and vulgarity and to prefer the formal, the ceremonious and the graceful in art. How apt, then, was the judgment of Kathryne Slate McDorman that Ngaio Marsh’s commitment to excellence, "be it in popular fiction or classical theater, argues persuasively for recognizing her for what she was, a woman of letters" (Ngaio Marsh, p.145).