The Marvellous Ms Marsh

Reading & Writing

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Of the big four ‘Queens of Crime’, Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers reside in the nation’s collective memory of Golden Age crime while the other two, Margery Allingham and Edith Ngaio Marsh, have become specialist questions in a trivia game. Allingham is now enjoying a major revival, and now – finally – Ngaio Marsh’s books have been reprinted.

Ms Marsh was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1895, and divided her life between her home and London, drawn to England by her love of the arts, especially theatre and painting. She did not publish her first novel until she was nearly forty, then produced roughly one annually for the next 32 years, all featuring CID Detective Roderick Alleyn.

Marsh had studied art and toured as an actress, so Alleyn was always going to be an unusually artistic copper, solving quite a few crimes in theatres and making a four book sojourn to her homeland. His first case, A Man Lay Dead, followed a perfect template for the Golden Age whodunnit, being set among guests at a country house during a game of murder.

The most interesting thing about Marsh is that she makes explicit the link between theatre and murder mysteries. Her parents were theatrical, and the young Marsh was steeped in all the elements of artifice. She was particularly fascinated by Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in search of an Author’, to the point where her eleventh novel, Death and the Dancing Footman, directly referenced the play. As a result her fiction was often constructed in a series of stagebound scenes, something for which she was critically attacked in the course of her career.

Taking Marsh to task for theatricality is completely missing the point. She recognized that mysteries work best when they specifically theatrical. The best restrict their cast to a confined space in which drama can overheat, and it sometimes feels as if there’s a proscenium arch and curtain framing her novels, which come complete with exits, entrances and extravagant stage names, like ‘Idris Campanula’.

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And yet it was Christie, not Marsh, who worked most in adapting her (much larger) output for the stage – rather badly as it happened; theatre was not her forte. As a producer, Marsh almost single-handedly revived New Zealand’s interest in the theatre. What brought her into the ‘Queens of Crime’ pantheon was the elegance and veracity of her writing, although her characters could sometimes be rather thin.

But Marsh has a quality only shared by Allingham from the big four – her writing has a sense of playful fun. About one character she says; ‘She was lovely beyond compare and as simple as a sheep’. A typically epithetical line from this most quotable and shamefully underrated of authors. She spends as much time outlining the squabbles of actors as solving crimes, and her plots are capable of surprising by their change of direction.

She was made a dame for her services to literature and the theatre, and should be read again. The best way to do this is to buy the triple-volume sets, which work out much cheaper. Try her most typical novel, Death at the Dolphin, which involves an old theatre and a Shakespearian mystery – if you like that you’ll like the others.

19 comments on “The Marvellous Ms Marsh”

  1. John says:

    She was also fond of employing cruel and bizarre methods of murder, the only woman writer of this era who indulged in that facet of crime writing. From a jeroboam of champagne used as a monstrous blunt instrument to the gruesome death trap employed in ARTISTS IN CRIME she never seemed to repeat herself in finding dastardly ways to dispatch her victims.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    Having read quite a few of her novels in the 1970’s when they were available, and probably still being written, I look forward to having another go. My main memories of the books was how they were peopled by some wonderfully theatrical and eccentric characters, but a rather dull detective-just the opposite of Christie. “Surfeit of Lampreys” was a favourite.

    I’ve never read Allingham, but a friend who enjoyed detective fiction of the old school (Christie for him could do no wrong) couldn’t stick her. He used to say she was far too descriptive. Eg, when a character entered a room there was then almost a page of describing the room in minutia of detail, right down to the ornaments. This has always put me off reading any. However, I do like the 1956 film of “Tiger in the Smoke” with Donald Sinden.

  3. Brian Evans says:

    John, the aforementioned “Surfeit of Lampreys”, if I remember right, has a character done in by having the eyes gauged out by a meat skewer.

  4. Brooke says:

    In my twenties I was an avid fan of both Marsh and Allingham and thought they were head and shoulders above Christie and Sayers. I read the latter two only when I couldn’t find anything else, even a newspaper, to read. But I thought Marsh’s novels were limited if inventive–too much upper crust theater with characters coming in and going out of doors. (Indeed Ms. Troy herself comments on this in one of the stories). Revisiting Marsh this summer, I still enjoy Dead in the Water, Scales of Justice, and Death at the Bar; the clever plots, psychology and characters stand out. However, I could not get re-read Allingham; the dialogue doesn’t work for me anymore.

    Much neglected is Cyril Hare (A.A. Gordon Clark). Tragedy at Law is fine.

  5. Sam Burns says:

    Have recently started to read a few of Ngaio March’s novels, picking them up from the library and charity shops, they were published by Harper Collins in 1999, maybe to tie in with the television series starring Patrick Malahide? I enjoyed them, especially the artistic connections, and have also read a few of Margery Allingham’s Campion novels. Found they varied in quality, some later ones I struggled to finish but loved the Tiger In The Smoke, the atmosphere of London she created was incredible, you could taste the murky fog as you read! Dorothy L Sayers I again enjoyed, but felt sometimes she went into too much detail, and somehow I can’t warm to Lord Peter Wimsey as much as I do Christie’s Poirot, the ”silly ass” persona wears a bit thin! The author I am drawn back to is Agatha Christie, especially the novels before 1950. Have just finished a fun book looking at the life and times of Jane Marple so now I want to re read those books, especially Nemesis as reading the plot I can’t remember if I’ve read it or not! Another Golden age author who was contemporary with Christie, Sayers et al is Dorothy Wentworth, whose protagonist, Miss Maud Silver is very similar to miss Marple, ie deceptively sweet old lady who is the downfall of all murderers and criminals! Not in the same league as the other novelists, but good undemanding reads none the less.

  6. Sam Burns says:

    Have just found another Ngaio Marsh in a charity shop, Colour Scheme and the method of murder is death in a pool of boiling mud! Well, I can’t not read it after reading that, what a delightfully bizarre way to bump someone off! You certainly don’t get that in Christie, more likely to be poison, which quite frankly seems very pedestrian and down right dull!

  7. Ruth says:

    I much prefer Ngaio Marsh to Margery Allingham who I always find rather obscure in her writing. Agatha Troy is my favourite character.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Definitely enjoyed Ngaio Marsh. At one point I had a list of her titles so I could cross them off as I read. I remember the bubbling mud, a hot pool in New Zealand. Funnily enough it’s her descriptions I remember: the sight of a New Zealand mountain range from the crest of a road, that mud bath and a description of the coast when Roderick is in New Zealand at the beginning of the war. There’s a nice bit with Troy painting a port scene from the boat she’s traveling on. I’ll never forget the death of the sheep rancher in the wool press. Was the one set in the Dolphin theatre the one that had Hamnet’s gloves on display?

  9. Vivienne says:

    It took me a while to take in that the “silly ass” type of young man was a reaction against the seriousness of WWI. Still, Peter Wimsey was just hopeless. Of them all, only Albert Campion was really bright and his vacancy was just a calculated front. I put Allingham above the others, partly as she managed a real sense of menace and danger and her plots were not just a country house puzzle. What about Gladys Mitchell?

  10. ceci says:

    Marsh has always been a HUGE favorite of mine, all the wonderful locales, the theater connections, the artists…..I really must find them all and read them in order……

    ceci

  11. Sam Burns says:

    Yes, have read a few Gladys Mitchell, but find her output was so vast the quality of her books does vary. Love Mrs Bradley as a protagonist and how she is described as being in appearance very wrinkled and reptilian! A complete contrast to the sweet and fluffy Miss Marple.Both extremely clever and shrewd and usually run rings around the official channels in investigations, just have very differing methods of finding the murderer!

  12. Trace Turner says:

    What I like about Margery Allingham’s books is that Albert Campion aged. The early books were light thrillers but later on he becomes more of a real person. I just read Coroner’s Pidgin set during WWII and was struck by how different it was in tone.

  13. agatha hamilton says:

    Helen – the gloves and Death at the Dolphin – yes, that’s the one.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Agatha. It’s odd that I don’t remember the details of the plot, but those gloves seemed to become so real. Another thing that was so clear was the studio in a garden gazebo-like structure.

  15. Brian Evans says:

    How one’s taste changes. I’ve just tried “Died in the Wool” and “Final Curtain” and couldn’t get into either of them. Yet years ago I thought she was a good read.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    It’s not just taste, Brian, it’s vocabulary. Our reading vocabulary, like our speaking one, changes with time so that an author using a previous vocabulary comes across as dated, hence boring.

  17. Brian Evans says:

    I can see what you mean, Helen. Dennis Wheatley is another-loved his books in my teens (many years ago), but tried one a few years ago and I gave up-it was terrible. I think an exception is P G Wodehouse who comes across as fresh as ever.

  18. Dave Young says:

    My introduction to Allingham was Coronor’s Pidgeon’ which, many years ago, featured as the Womens’ Hour daily story. (A favourite listen of mine, and many other lorry drivers)

    This Campion mystery (one of her best) introduces the marvellous Magersfontein Lugg – a character so good John Lawton ‘borrowed’ him for walk-on parts in his Inspector Troy novels

  19. Mike Campbell says:

    A definite thumbs up from me as well for Cyril Hare – great fun – nine novels and a volume of short stories were re-issued by Faber in the 1980s, but I don’t know if he’s still in print anymore.

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