Skip to content
Marsh, Ngaio
Writer's File

Ngaio Marsh

Marsh, Ngaio
In brief
Ngaio Marsh spent most of her life in Christchurch, despite long periods in England. A prolific and hugely successful writer of crime fiction; paperbacks, hardbacks and radio serials of her work amounted to a small industry. Yet Marsh was also a major figure in New Zealand theatre. The University of Canterbury awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1962, and named its new theatre after her. Other honours include the DBE, New Zealand literature’s first such award, and the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award.


MARSH, Ngaio (1895–1982), was born and educated in Christchurch, where she spent most of her adult life, despite long periods in England and extended trips to other parts of the world.

She began writing at an early age, publishing in school magazines and winning prizes for poems and prose. Her interest in theatre also began during her schooldays, when she acted and wrote for several productions. Nonetheless she chose to study painting, entering Canterbury College School of Art in 1913, where she and Evelyn Page (Polson) were the most successful students of their generation.

Marsh stayed at the college until 1919 and left determined to be a professional painter. At the same time she was publishing occasional pieces for the Christchurch Sun. She was distracted, however, by the opportunity to tour the North Island with the Allan Wilkie Shakespeare Company (1919–20) and followed this by touring with the Rosemary Rees Comedy Company.

These experiences laid the foundation for her later work in the theatre. During the 1920s Marsh continued to paint, exhibiting with ‘The Group’, seven Christchurch artists, most of them women, who made a powerful impression. She also continued to write poetry and stories, mainly for the Sun. In 1928, aged 33, she travelled to England for the first time, at the invitation of the wealthy Canterbury family of Rhodes, who maintained connections with ‘Home’.

Although her first youth was past, Marsh felt that Britain was as much a home to her as New Zealand, perhaps more so. The ambivalence is not, of course, untypical of her generation. She threw herself into the life of the theatre in London and into social life opened to her by the Rhodes family. In 1929 she and a friend set up a small shop in Knightsbridge.

Throughout this period she wrote journalistic accounts of her travels and other experiences, but her attempt to write a novel with a New Zealand setting was a failure because, she said, ‘figures’ and ‘background’ refused to combine into a unified picture: ‘I turned, more successfully, to crime fiction.’

In an essay of 1977 (‘Birth of a Sleuth’) she describes how she came, in 1931, to invent the figure of Roderick Alleyn, the very English detective-inspector who was to dominate her fiction. This was set mostly in English theatres and country houses, although the European continent is significant (e.g. in When in Rome, 1970) and four of her thirty-two novels have New Zealand settings.

In 1932, hearing that her mother was ill, Marsh took ship for New Zealand. During the next five years she wrote four novels set in England and tried to create an English garden around her Christchurch house. Nonetheless these ‘English’ novels were often inspired by events in Christchurch and she also exhibited some landscapes in oils which reflected the New Zealand environment. At the same time she produced plays for amateur groups.

In 1937 she returned to England and undertook a car trip through France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Luxemburg with some friends. Again she made use of these experiences for excellent travel journalism. During the voyage to England she wrote her sixth novel—Artists in Crime (1938)—in which Roderick Alleyn meets Agatha Troy, a painter who can be seen as an alter ego of the novelist herself. Alleyn and Troy marry in Death in a White Tie (1938). By this time Marsh could be described (in the Times Literary Supplement) as ‘in the front rank of crime story writers’.

She was at the height of her powers, writing fluently and publishing at least one novel each year. They are all set in England, but in Surfeit of Lampreys (1940) a major character is Roberta Grey, a New Zealander, rather over-impressed by English high society life, even though she also believes that as a colonial she has more energy and a more practical approach to things, which, in some circumstances at least, give her the edge over the effete society idols.

This ambivalence, according to which the English are admired for their superior command of social skills but held to be inadequate in practical situations, was to characterise Marsh throughout her career. This stay in Britain was a comparatively short one and in April 1938 she returned to New Zealand.

In 1942 she collaborated with R.M. Burdon on a book about New Zealand, expressing intense wartime patriotism, and her next novel, Colour Scheme (1943) was set in Rotorua, making much of the drama of the thermal region. It was during the forties, too, that Marsh began to make her most striking contributions to New Zealand theatre.

Her first Shakespeare production was a modern-dress Hamlet with the Canterbury University College Drama Society in 1943. This was the beginning of a ‘golden age’ in which she cooperated with such musicians as Douglas Lilburn and Frederick Page (husband of Eve) as well as with many young actors who were later to become well-known. Shakespeare was her main love, but she also produced plays by Pirandello, Chekhov and others. New Zealand dramatists formed no part of her repertoire. The climax was a tour of Australia in early 1949.

In the same year Marsh again travelled to England and from this time dates her habit of signing British hotel registers with her New Zealand address and New Zealand ones with her London address. After three theatre seasons and much literary and social activity she returned to Christchurch in 1951, sailing by way of Sydney with a British Commonwealth Theatre Company, which she directed with only moderate success.

Despite the destruction of her old Christchurch theatre, she was much more successful with her production of Julius Caesar and she threw herself into theatrical life again. Nonetheless she soon returned to England. Meanwhile her detective fiction had been so prolific and so viable financially that Ngaio Marsh Ltd was formed as an independent company.

Paperbacks, hardbacks, dramatisations and radio serials of her work amounted to a small industry. During this extended stay in Britain Marsh also became something of a public personality, taking part in radio games, etc.

The fiction continued to pursue the same formula, but through various settings, most of them English. These variations extend the application of the formula, for example by describing the survival of pagan rites in an English village in Off with His Head (1956), but the formula itself remains unchanged. Marsh also liked to use the theatre as a setting in her novels, and the theatrical element extends into plotting and characterisation. Perhaps this, more than anything else, distinguishes her work from that of her main rivals in the genre.

She returned to New Zealand in 1956 and began work on her next Shakespearean production, King Lear. She spent some three months each year on theatrical work, and nine months on writing. On her next trip to Britain, in 1960, she toured several countries in the Far East as well as the United States. Again she tasted theatrical life in London but returned to Christchurch in 1961.

She was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Canterbury in 1962 and presented the Macmillan Brown Lectures there, speaking of ‘Shakespeare in the Theatre’. At this time she also entered into a fruitful cooperation with the composer David Farquhar on the opera ‘A Unicorn for Christmas’.

In 1965 she was again in Britain and was awarded the DBE, New Zealand literature’s first such award. Other honours included the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award.

In 1966 she published her autobiography Black Beech and Honeydew, which disappointed many readers with its reticence on matters of public interest, and it was in response to some of this disappointment that she added chapters on the background to her fiction in the revised edition of 1981.

Now a very public figure, Marsh continued to do the things she did best, writing a continuous stream of detective fiction and devoting much of her energy to the theatre. She was tireless in her support of young actors and directors. Her writing had made her an international figure, as the tributes after her death made plain, but in New Zealand she was remembered equally for the contribution she had made to developing local theatrical talent. (One tribute is in Mervyn Thompson’s Passing Through. See also Shakespeare in New Zealand.) In 1967 the University of Canterbury named its new theatre after her, and she came from semi- retirement to direct the gala opening production at the new Christchurch Town Hall in 1972. She chose Henry V, and this was her last production.

In her fiction, Ngaio Marsh shares many of the snobberies and other conventions of the detective novel of the 1930s, where the Depression has little impact, where working-class people do not exist except as humble and loyal servants in large houses, where the solving of a crime confirms the basic reliability of the ‘system’ and suggests a security comfortably surrounding whatever violence occurs, and where the conventional structure of the narrative adds to the reader’s security, without the threats to established thought arising from experimental literature.

Some of her critics have suggested that the rigid form and the stylisation of detective fiction provided a shelter for her reticent personality. The English country settings similarly provided an escape from the more demanding task of establishing a New Zealand novel tradition.

The four novels with New Zealand settings are Vintage Murder (1937), Colour Scheme (1943), Died in the Wool (1945) and Photo-Finish (1980). The first of these is based on the author’s experiences with travelling theatre companies. The theatrical detail is spiced with Māori ‘superstitions’ surrounding a tiki, and Alleyn inquires almost as much into Māori culture—using Dr Te Pokiha as his informant—as into the crime.

For all this ‘exoticism’ the novel has the conventional structure of a crime committed by someone in a limited and closed group of people. There are moments, which must embarrass some readers, when the colonials submit obsequiously to the great detective from the metropolis, but also some obvious attempts to show sympathy for the Māori predicament—from the outside.

Colour Scheme has aroused more interest than any other of her novels. The use of death by boiling in a mud pool could be seen as an attempt to locate the novel in the country, but equally as a sensational appeal to the exotic for international readers. It is only the rather startling setting which makes the plot differ from the conventional style.

The English country village has been replaced by a Māori one and the quiet countryside by boiling mud and geysers. There is some treatment of the loss of cultural artefacts to unscrupulous dealers. Nonetheless the view is still external and though Marsh treats her Māori characters with respect, she seems remote from their concerns. As in the case of the tiki, the artefacts are surrounded by superstition.

Died in the Wool, completed between productions of Hamlet and Othello, is set on a mountain sheep station in the South Island. It calls on landscapes which can also be seen in Marsh’s paintings. They are lovingly described, and yet the basic tale is another country-house murder, transported to the antipodes. An extra touch of the exotic is added by Alleyn’s search for Nazi sympathisers.

South Island landscapes also play a prominent role in Photo-Finish, where Alleyn’s wife Troy accompanies him and observes the scene with a painter’s eye. She believes that this land belongs to birds rather than humans. In this novel, again, Māori tapu is used to add an exotic touch to the action. The restriction of characters to a closed group is achieved this time by placing them on an island in the middle of a lake, and the murder victim is a famous opera singer.

Despite the exotic setting the conventions of the genre are never really challenged, here or elsewhere in Marsh’s work; rather they are exploited with consummate skill.

A complete list of Marsh’s fiction is appended to Margaret Lewis’s Ngaio Marsh: A Life (1991).