The Marvellous Ms Marsh
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’.
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.