Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982.)
by Carol Westron
Throughout the 1920s Marsh divided her life between the theatre, writing poetry and stories and painting, exhibiting with 'The Group, seven Christchurch artists who made a great impact with their work. In 1928 Marsh visited Britain for the first time as the guest of a wealthy New Zealand family who had maintained connections with Britain. From that first visit, Marsh loved Britain and, in 1929, she set up a small shop in Knightsbridge.
In 1932 Marsh returned to New Zealand to look after her sick mother. In 1934 she wrote A Man Lay Dead, featuring Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn, a detective at Scotland Yard. This was the first of thirty-two crime novels featuring Alleyn, who ended his career as Detective Chief Superintendent. Most of the novels are set in England but a few are set in New Zealand (Vintage Murder, Died in the Wool, Colour Scheme and Photo Finish.) In Surfeit of Lampreys the story begins in New Zealand but the main action takes place in London. Occasionally Marsh uses her travels in Europe as the background for her novels (When In Rome and Spinsters In Jeopardy.)
Ngaio Marsh is one of the Golden Age 'Queens of Crime' and Roderick Alleyn is very much a Golden Age detective hero: handsome, well-born (his brother is a baronet) and highly intelligent, he is also unfailingly courteous to those of a lower class or less wealthy than he is. His usual assistant at Scotland Yard is Inspector Fox, a solid and reliable officer and they share a mutual respect. In A Man Lay Dead Alleyn meets Nigel Bathgate, a young reporter who, in later novels, likes to describe himself as Alleyn's 'Watson.'
In 1938 Marsh returned to England from New Zealand after travelling through Europe, and it was on board ship that she wrote Artists In Crime, her sixth book featuring Alleyn. The opening chapter is set on just such a ship and relates how Alleyn first met Agatha Troy. Troy is a famous artist and many people think Troy is Marsh's alter ego. Alleyn falls in love with Troy and, although she refuses him in Artists In Crime, she does not stand out against him for long and they marry at the end of Marsh's next book, Death In a White Tie, also written in 1938. Troy and Alleyn have one son and remain happily married for the rest of the series. Troy appears in many of the subsequent books and sometimes, as in A Clutch of Constables Shrouds, has a very prominent role in the story.
During the Second World War Marsh joined the Red Cross Transport Unit in New Zealand. After the War Marsh divided her place of residence between Britain and New Zealand, just as she divided her time between writing, painting and the theatre. She formed a theatre company and directed many productions. In 1967 the University of Canterbury named its theatre after her.
Throughout all her books Marsh's passion for the theatre and for art is obvious and provides settings and characters for many of her books. The theatre is especially prominent, as is her passion for Shakespeare. Also evident is her interest fascination with Maori customs and her corresponding interest in traditional English customs.
Marsh started her crime writing career with A Man Lay Dead, a classic 'country house murder,' and this was a formula she kept returning to. Even some of her novels set in New Zealand, such as Died In the Wool, have the same structure. Although Marsh says that Alleyn served in the First World War, his experiences are glossed over and have left no physical or emotional scars. Marsh mentions the Second World War in her novels (indeed the subplot in Died In the Wool is that Alleyn is seconded to New Zealand to uncover Nazi spies) but she does not allow the privations and change of attitudes that followed the War to mar her picture of the England of country houses and high-born eccentrics.
First published by Penguin Books Surfeit of Lampreys is now available on Kindle or in a three-books-in-one volume published by Harper. ISBN-10: 0007328729. ISBN-13: 978-0007328727
One of the Lampreys' inevitable financial crises is looming and the only hope of avoiding bankruptcy is for Lord Charles to receive aid from his disapproving, joyless and tight-fisted older brother, Lord Wutherwood. With a debt-collector sitting in the kitchen, only the Lampreys would decide that the best way to soften Lord Wutherwood towards them was to hold a charade to entertain him during his visit. The scheme was not successful and Lord Wutherwood storms out. He has to wait in the lift that serves the flat for some time until he is joined by his loathsome wife, Violet. The lift goes down a few floors and then up again and when the doors open Lord Wutherwood is dying, stabbed through the eye by a skewer that had been used in the charade.
Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. Coming from the aristocracy himself, Alleyn has no problems dealing with the Lamprey family on equal terms. Unwisely they close ranks and refuse to tell Alleyn all he needs to know. There are many things Alleyn has to discover. Was Lord Wutherwood stabbed before his wife joined him and the lift doors closed? Which twin, Colin or Stephen, operated the lift for their uncle and why are they being so secretive? Did Lady Wutherwood behave so irrationally before the shock of her husband's death? Alleyn soon discovers that the Lampreys are all charming and amoral, but are any of them capable of murder to inherit their uncle's wealth? Before Alleyn can answer any of these questions there is another murder.
In Surfeit of Lampreys, the murder of Lord Wutherwood is gruesome but the tone of the book is light and often playful and the solution is revealed in a scene of theatrical melodrama. Even at the height of the investigation, Marsh draws humour out of Alleyn's attempts to question the Lampreys' deaf aunt: 'Alleyn wondered distractedly if there was anywhere at all in the flat where he could yell in privacy into the ear of this lady. He decided that the best place would be in the disconnected lift with the doors shut. By a series of inviting gestures he managed to lure her in.'
Surfeit of Lampreys (1941)
Died in the Wool (1945)
Opening Night (1951)
Off With His Head (1957)
Hand in Glove (1962)
Clutch of Constables (1968)
Black as he’s Painted (1964)
Photo Finish (1980)