Ngaio Marsh is one of the best examples of a great mystery author. Her books span from the early 1930s to the early 1980s, with all of them being exceptionally good. Too many times, an author loses steam after writing several books in a series, but still continues to publish books almost on automatic pilot. Not so with Ngaio Marsh!
Who Was Ngaio Marsh?
Her mother was a New Zealander and her father came from London. She was born in 1895 as Edith Ngaio Marsh and had aspirations of a theatrical life. She was described as being very tall (5’10») which might have been one of the factors that contributed to her not becoming a leading lady. Lucky for us that she became a leading mystery author instead!
Marsh was an only child and described herself as having been introverted. She was a great lover of books, and her family was very interested in the theater. She went to college to study painting but later found that she was more suited to writing.
She joined a theater troupe but had to resign when they went overseas. Ngaio’s mother didn’t think it would be fitting for a single woman to travel without a chaperon. It was then that Marsh focused on her painting, tutoring, and writing plays. She became a regular of high society. (Ngaio Marsh never married nor had children.)
Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn
In 1931 she took a stab at writing a mystery. Her first novel in the series «A Man Lay Dead» introduced the world to London’s Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn. Alleyn comes from the very upper crust of England’s society. His brother (obviously older brother) is a Lord.
Her books truly do seem quite timeless. She wrote mysteries that are consistently good, with characters that seem real. Even when reading one of Marsh’s books in the early 21st century, you find that you can connect with the action. The characters do not seem faded with time.
Her mysteries are true puzzles. She didn’t spring last minute details into her plots, making it possible for the reader to play detective while reading the books.
Attention to the Reader
Chief Superintendent Alleyn and his sergeant (Detective Fox) discuss theories using facts that the reader is aware of, rather than hiding important facts from the reader. How many times can you recall when an author has action taking place outside of the mystery reader’s realm of facts? That is quite frustrating for the mystery reader. That does not happen in Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries. The reader is aware of all of the facts.
Inspector Alleyn’s love interest is Agatha Troy. Troy is a very modern-thinking woman who happens to be an artist. (No small coincidence that Marsh was also an artist!) Marsh used some of her favorite subjects in her novels: the theater and painting.
Location of Ngaio Marsh’s Mysteries
Marsh set most of her novels in England. A few of her novels, however, had Inspector Alleyn traveling to New Zealand. Very fitting locales since Marsh spent her life traveling back and forth between England and New Zealand.
Marsh established a theater company that traveled throughout the British Commonwealth in the 1950s. In 1966 she was made a Dame in Great Britain. She continued writing her mystery novels all of her life. In 1978 the Mystery Writers of America made her a Grand Master for her contribution to the mystery genre.
Ngaio Marsh is touted as one of the Queens of Crime from the Golden Age. The other three are Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margery Allingham. Not bad company!
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