Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime
Whatever it was that impelled Ngaio Marsh, at the age of 36, to purchase six exercise books and a handful of pencils and go back to her cold London flat and begin writing a detective novel is only one of the many mysteries of her long and remarkable life. Perhaps being born in Christchurch in 1895 on April 23 – St George’s Day, but also William Shakespeare’s birthday – gives a clue to her double life and dual calling. Home was in New Zealand, but she was even more at Home in England. She was New Zealand’s best-known international writer, but seemingly, despite that success, she always gave precedence to her love for the theatre.
In Joanne Drayton’s readable and respectful biography we are reminded what an exceptional woman Ngaio Marsh was – and how her life really spanned two eras. The young woman who went to England in 1931 in many ways belonged to a world that existed before WWI. Her early friendship in Christchurch with Tahu Rhodes, scion of the English landed family that had owned extensive sheep stations in Canterbury since the 1840s, gave her contacts in England when he and his wife Nelly returned to live in the early 1930s. Her stay with them in 1936-7 was rather akin to Charles Ryder’s sojourn with Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Except, to extend the Evelyn Waugh analogy, it was more like being with the Bright Young Things of his slyly satiric, earlier novel, Vile Bodies.
Marsh’s fondness for the Rhodes, whom she later called the Lampreys in her murder mystery A Surfeit of Lampreys (1941), was based on the energy and free-spiritedness of their life. They were well-heeled, certainly, but it was their vagabond exploits – spur of the moments trips to Monte Carlo, and the general air of conviviality and carpe diem – which delighted this reticent, always conscientious young woman. Elsewhere in her life, she looked for, and found, such joie de vivre in artistic circles – the bohemian world of painters and designers, and in the mercurial, often agitated, intensity of the cliquey theatre set.
The tall, willowy, rather-mannish Ngaio Marsh figured prominently in both scenes in Christchurch. Early on, it was as an art student in 1915, with emerging painters such as Evelyn Page, Rata Lowell-Smith, Olivia Spencer Bower and Rhona Haszard, with whom she shared, if not the same level of talent, certainly the liberation from petit bourgeois New Zealand life. Not that Marsh’s doting parents were any dampener on her emerging enthusiasm. Her father, a tolerant atheist, and her mother, a resourceful homemaker, nurtured unconditionally their only child’s every ambition. This included fronting up with the money for the first of her many sea voyages to England.
It was in 1934 that A Man Lies Dead, Marsh’s first detective mystery introduced, fully-realised, her hero-sleuth, Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn – “tall and thin with an accidental elegance about him and a fastidiousness”. As Drayton notes, 1934 was a very good year for the “Queens of Crime”, the impressive quartet of women writers who had first catapulted the minor genre of detective and crime fiction into the publishing phenomenon it has now become. Dorothy Sayers, with her foppish hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, published first in 1923. Agatha Christie, the most prominent and prolific, came to attention with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in 1926. Margery Allingham was only 25 when Crime at Black Dudley appeared in 1929, and Ngaio Marsh, the young New Zealander with the exotic first name and a witty gift for “murder and teckery” (as well as a detailed eye for character and situation) also came to favourable prominence.
Marsh published 32 novels between 1934 and the year of her death in 1982. Roderick Alleyn featured in all of them – whether in the familiar English country houses, in smart society in London, on board ship via Fiji to New Zealand, or behind the scenes of a repertory theatre where the head of the lead actor is found on a pikestaff. It was in 1938, in Artists in Crime (her sixth novel in four years) on the dock at Suva that Alleyn first sees his future wife, the painter Agatha Troy. Drayton examines the connections and projections for Marsh herself:
Ngaio wove her whodunits out of the fabric of her own life. “I always tried to keep the settings of my books as far as possible within the confines of my own experience.” For the make-up of her leading characters she looked to people she knew, and to herself.
If Alleyn reflected the almost fussily feminine cultured, reserved side of Ngaio, then Troy was a projection of her truculently masculine, untamed artistic self. She was the painter in fiction that Ngaio longed to be in life.
Marsh’s success as a crime writer – and her immediate mastery of its stylistic and generic requirements – is as amazing as it is unexplained. Drayton describes it as looking “for the golden section – for the perfect measure of ordered form”. It was something Marsh sought in painting but couldn’t find, whereas in her writing it came effortlessly and with exceptional assurance and flair.
The Queens of Crime, adored by their readers, were not, however, without their detractors. It was Edmund Wilson in the New Yorker in 1945 who peevishly asked “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?“, challenging the genre as a whole and calling Marsh’s prose “unappetizing sawdust”. Wilson was always past persuasion, but it was the views of Raymond Chandler, expressed in his article “The Simple Art of Murder” and published in the Atlantic Monthly a year earlier, that opened up a still recognisable divide. Castigating the Queens for the artificiality and gentility of their writing, Chandler lauded his colleague Dashiell Hammett because he “took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley”. It was like Zola spruiking naturalism in the novel 80 years earlier, and the attack was more about Chandler’s own claims than Hammett’s. It also reminds us of the gendering of crime fiction that still persists. It is not a strict separation, but the blokes often go for Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, Carl Hiaasen and James Lee Burke, while women readers prefer Ruth Rendell, P D James, Donna Leon and Janet Evanovich.
As Drayton reminds us, Marsh’s fiction is a product of its time and her class. Chandler is right: there is a kind of snobbery in the Colonel Mustard in the library country house mystery, and it persists in current television with Midsomer Murders and re-runs of Inspector Morse. When Alleyn visits the antipodes in novels such as Vintage Murder (1937) and Died in the Wool (1945), Marsh ambitiously held a lens to New Zealand life, and a discernible cultural cringe is evident. After she had seen London, Marsh often found it hard staying down on the farm, so to speak. But she was not alone among writers, historians and sociologists in thinking that the standard Kiwi response to the outside world was a sort of passive-hostile complacency.
Marsh’s views of Maori-Pakeha relations and the colonial relation to Britain, as her biographer notes, are anachronistic and limited, but they also reflect a resolute biculturalism. More interesting is the fact that she was examining social themes and attitudes in her novels and that her achievements as a writer were totally dismissed by the New Zealand academic and intellectual establishment – unlike Sayers, Tolkien and Ronald Knox, all pop fiction dons in UK at the time. Her very success, it seems, was an impediment in New Zealand, and she downplayed it even when in 1949 Penguin published The Marsh Million – 10 volumes, re-released simultaneously in print runs of 100,000 each.
It is perhaps hardly surprising that Marsh looked to the young for inspiration and energy. Her association with the Canterbury University College Drama Society began with a production of Hamlet in 1943 and her connection with theatre in Christchurch continued for the rest of her life. Drayton’s account highlights Marsh’s love for the theatre and her dedication as a director, especially of Shakespeare. In many respects her commitment and considerable philanthropy (she poured much of her own money into productions and touring) provided a vital bridge to the arrival in the mid-1960s of funded permanent professional companies such as Downstage, Mercury and, later, The Court.
But, despite extensive acknowledgements in the book to her collaborators, we have little sense of Marsh’s strategies and style as a director. There are few anecdotes, and certainly no gossip. Drayton’s accounts are descriptive of general logistics and the published critical responses, but despite the usually indiscreet nature of the theatre, only a respectful silence prevails.
This is even more the case with Ngaio Marsh’s private life. She herself destroyed correspondence and other documents – and her most significant relationships, all with women, particularly her lifelong friend and neighbour, Sylvia Fox, remain opaque. Drayton makes it clear that even when Marsh wrote her autobiography Black Beech and Honeydew, she was most reluctant “to let her hair down”. Instead, this biography modestly reminds us of the considerable accomplishments of a woman of many parts, who unravelled copious puzzles for eager readers – but cheerfully remained an enigma herself.
Murray Bramwell teaches drama at Flinders University in South Australia and is a theatre critic for The Australian and The Adelaide Review.